Getting Context into Stories

Convener and note taker: Melinda Voss


We discussed obstacles to getting context into news stories. These include:

* We don’t remind ourselves enough that we need to put it in.

* Reporters get tunnel vision about a story and don’t think to put it in.

* Beat reporters forget to add background for stories they cover over and over.

* Sometimes, we don’t have enough time to put it in.

* Sometimes, we don’t have space to put it in.

* Sometimes, it’s difficult to determine exactly what and how much context we should provide. How do we know exactly what context readers need? Especially since newspaper readers include everyone from a 15-year-old (that we’re trying to get more of) to 75 year olds, from people who know nothing about the subject to folks who know a lot.

* Sometimes, reporters don’t have enough training or background information to know what context to put in.

We discussed ways to overcome the obstacles. These include:

* Break out background and context-type information in a separate story, perhaps a boxed insert, an overview box, whatever you want to call it.

* Have some standard graphs written that should always be included in ongoing stories. At the Des Moines Register, we used to call this “A “matter. One participant said every story in his newspaper about the economic problems with Boeing include a sentence that says Boeing is the largest employer in the xcxcxcx area. Some participants said they weren’t sure this was such a good idea. Could lead readers to quit reading once they hit the A matter thinking there is nothing new after that. A way to get around this is to work in the key points in different ways in each story.

* Use positive reinforcement to encourage reporters and editors to include it in stories.

* Talk to reporters and editors when it’s not in stories to find out why.

* Find ways to help reporters and editors include context in stories.  One suggestion: If you have an ongoing topic in your community, such as urban sprawl. Invite a local historian/expert on that topic in for a brown bag to give the staff a quick course in it so they have a stronger background in the subject.

* Be rigorous about giving context when reporting on numbers. For example, don’t just report percentages, but percentages of what number.  Don’t just say $2 million increase, but from what to what.

* Provide training for reporters so they know what context to include.

If anyone else has more thoughts about this topic, I’d love to hear from them. I think I may try to write a piece for AJR or CJR or some such publication on this topic. (

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