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

Context can enhance even a solid story

By · Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

BIG numbers. How can journalists convey how big?

A good example is found in the work of Manny Fernandez of The New York Times, whose story about Houston after Hurricane Harvey carries the headline: “Over 21 Miles of Highway, Snapshots of a Resilient Houston.”

How can we visualize the size of Houston?

Fernandez shows us in the lead of the story:

HOUSTON — This city sprawls over 600 square miles, an area so big that Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit could all fit within it simultaneously. The nine-county Houston metropolitan region, covering more than 10,000 square miles, is almost as large as the entire state of Massachusetts.

Context. Fernandez puts the size of Houston in context of what is familiar to us and what we can see. For veteran journalists, context is a natural item on the mental checklist when reporting and writing. Inserting context is an art that takes practice.

Editors have a role in ensuring that context is present, and context has multiple roles, too:

When context is present, even an otherwise solid story is greatly enhanced.

Without context, editors can feel a bit confused when editing a story, and they have an obligation to readers to do something about it. That’s because context says to readers: “Keep this in mind when you read this story.”

Editors can identify places where stories might need context by asking themselves an assortment of questions in the appropriate places:

  1. Is the news peg evident fairly high in the story?
  2. In numbers-heavy stories, are good comparisons made when possible?
  3. Are chronologies clear?
  4. Are special terms or references explained?
  5. Is there ample background information, or is it missing or scattered about in the story?

Even if you’re not an editor, and especially as a reader, at least this list of questions can empower you. You’ll know that it’s not you who is missing the point of the story. Instead, something likely is missing that should be in the story. Context.

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