Living and Dying at the Pointy End of the Pyramid

Posted on August 23, 2011


One of the first things young journalism students learn is to write in inverted pyramid form. This venerable tradition has been around since the invention of the idea of objectivity as a way of sneakily transposing the views of the editor on to the public. Inverted pyramid format stresses the most important details in the first paragraph—the lede—then the less consequential, and so on. The upshot is that the newspaper reader, pressed for time, can be secure in the fact that they can skip the last quarter of the article as having little but interesting details. The meat of the story can be read in a minute or two, and on to the next.

Of course, the criteria for relative importance is not an objective one. But in many areas of news-writing, a lack of clear authority or power can create the freedom to create accurate ledes that adhere to the real world. Here is how an inverted pyramid format is structured:

And then there’s Palestine and Israel. Here’s the lede for last week’s NYT story on the brief build up of hostilities between Palestinian organizations and Israeli troops:

Palestinian militants from Gaza fired rockets at cities deep inside Israeli territory on Saturday, killing one person. And Israel struck a squad that was firing mortars from northern Gaza as violence continued in the wake of an attack on Thursday that killed eight Israelis, Israeli officials said.

Well, that seems to get it all in the first paragraph. We have the deaths caused by the violence–eight Israelis killed by Palestinian mortars. And the most important interlocutor, Israeli officials. Then our interesting facts, and colorful details, and in most stories, that’s reserved for “but expert blah blah says”. Then, the end. There couldn’t be anything of importance in those last two paragraphs. Just this:

At least 14 Palestinians, four of them civilians, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since Thursday. The Israeli military says it has been striking at Hamas training facilities, weapons manufacturing sites, smugglers’ tunnels, and rocket and mortar teams preparing to attack.Some 50 rockets have been fired at Israel since Thursday. Three Palestinian laborers were wounded Saturday morning by a rocket that exploded on the outskirts of the port city of Ashdod. In the evening, a rocket that hit a house in Ofakim wounded three, including an infant and a child.

What’s the criteria here to determine newsworthiness? I mean, I know, after years of reading the New York Times how these numbers break down. But is it written down somewhere? Seriously, I’d like a look at the style manual.