Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Context essential in any story

By · Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

As I was reading the latest news today about the conflict between North Korea and South Korea, I came upon a couple of paragraphs tucked in a New York Times story that added value to my understanding of the situation.

The paragraphs provided:

They told me why this crisis is different from other ones between the two countries over the past 20 years. They explained why I should care now.

“How did we get here?” is a question that should be answered in stories, whether they be about international news of great import or routine coverage of our own communities. Answering this question can prevent frustration for readers who might have a fuzzy memory about past events. Recapping and explaining is an essential role of journalists.

In our book, “Think Like an Editor: 50 Strategies for the Print and Digital World,” we devote Strategy 16 to this concept: “Context: How to Provide Background and Relevance.” We explain the importance of background for context, as well as the need for numbers as context and comparisons as context.

In a Web-first world, in which breaking news is disseminated so quickly, it is still vital that journalists at some point in their reporting and editing ask the all-important question about context — and then answer it for readers. We all benefit.

Emilie Davis

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