Human Interest


Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. 

In high school journalism class, that was all we learned. The teacher made a special point to emphasize that the five “W’s” and one “H” should be included in the first paragraph, or at least the introductory sections, of any story. From this the reader was immediately informed of the important content of the article; who are the participants in the story, what happened to them, when and where the event occurred, and why the event took place! The “how” of the event is fluff used to fill out the space allotted for the story.

However, nowhere in the basic tenets of factual journalism of years past does it say “and in my opinion this event occurred for reasons I deem to be for the good of society or for reasons that I will never understand and are detrimental.” Nowhere does it say to describe an individual as a  conservative or liberal whose opinions, decisions, and behaviors are “controversial.” 

While researching information for this blog I came upon two articles that referred to “The Elements of Good Journalism,” and the “Ethical Principles of Journalism.” These articles express the principles upon which honest journalism is based and provide guidelines for writers to present their story responsibly. The reader should come away from the article with new knowledge that will allow him to formulate an opinion, and not come away with an opinion decided for him and thrust upon him by the writer. The principles of ethical journalism are the following:

   Truth and Accuracy—be certain the facts presented are accurate, a “cardinal principle”

   Independence—do not act on behalf of special interests or groups

   Fairness and Impartiality—stories have two sides, don’t emphasize one side over another

   Humanity—“do no harm,” be aware of the impact of our words on the lives of others

   Accountability—hold ourselves accountable, correct our errors sincerely not cynically

In the news stories I’ve read over the last 15-20 years, I haven’t seen any of these principles exhibited. What now passes for news stories are sentences that contain some factual information, but whose meaning is altered by the tone in which they are written. They contain adjectives, words that modify the meaning of nouns (the facts), that convey a bias. The writer expresses his opinion of the situation through word descriptions that manipulate the reader’s interpretation. His prose is an extension of his opinions that attempts to influence the reader’s thinking. The author not-so-subtly inserts words that describe someone or something in a manner that sways the reader in a desired direction.

For example, by describing a person as “controversial,” the writer says the opinions of that person are out of, what the author considers, the mainstream, and that he disagrees with his position and finds it unappealing or unacceptable. Why not omit the “controversial” description, state the facts, and let the reader decide for himself?

Also by saying so-and-so “slams” the comments of another individual, the writer is telling you he also disagrees with what the person stated and also thinks he is wrong. Instead of telling his position on the matter, he should say so-and-so disagrees or offers a different opinion. When someone “slams” another’s opinion, it must be a really wrong opinion! 

Headlines are often misleading and show bias, too. “Smith Proposed Graphic Questions for Jones in the Government Sex Scandal” says Smith was out to trap Jones during the sex scandal trial with gotcha questions and get him to admit to something the author is convinced happened. Why not say “Smith questions Jones’ Testimony in Sex Trial.” But that sounds boring.

The motto they live by is sensationalism — the ability of the author to grab the attention of the reader and get him to read the entire piece with the goal of changing an opinion so it’s in line with what the author feels it should be. It sells papers! The facts ARE boring.

“Pepsi to Acquire SodaStream in Shift to Healthier Drinks” implies Pepsi Cola is unhealthy and should not be drunk. That Pepsi, the company, has “finally” seen the light and is “doing the right thing” by promoting a low calorie, low sodium, low sugar drink that will make everyone healthier. That’s an opinion. It may be true that this drink is better for you, but it’s not true that Pepsi has been purposely selling a product that makes users unhealthy, as the headline seems to imply.

Examples of journalistic bias are legion. Just begin any article in any paper and within two or three paragraphs, or even sentences, you’ll detect a slant to the story. The front page of the September 16th edition of the Indianapolis Star had four major stories: one a human interest piece about a traffic guard, another about the career of a cooking contest winner, and two that had a political slant—one about a high school senior’s social justice advocacy, the other about the Olympic gymnast sex abuse scandal and the FBI’s handling of it. On the second page was an article about how one political party was trying secretly to gain an advantage through gerrymandering. It alleged that one party was cheating and keeping it a secret from the other. Wow was it a doozie! I wonder what my journalism teacher would have said. Never mind that the only story of any real news value on the first two pages was the gymnast abuse scandal. Two others were written with the expressed intent to influence the reader in a certain direction. Impartiality and fairness were non-existent. Are these stories front page news? Not really! They would have more appropriately been in the human interest section. At best they should have been in the politics section. 

Real news is buried. It might be on page 5, 6, 7 or not at all! Page 6 in The Star is called “Nation and World.” There were four articles; each one showed favoritism in one direction and criticized the opinions of the opposition. These editorials were passed off as routine news stories. Yes, they were editorials, not news stories, because it was obvious who they thought were the good guys and who they portray as the bad guy. And newspapers wonder why circulation numbers are so dismal. If your Dad, who you love and respect dearly, is a famous person and the paper writes negative things about him every day, you’re not going to pay money for that paper even if they do write good stories about your favorite team. It makes no sense.

We don’t see a headline such as “Hurricane makes landfall in North Carolina” any more. It states the facts. As long as the story describes the locations the storm affected, the damage it caused, what individuals had to be rescued, and doesn’t offer a personal opinion of the response to the disaster, honest journalistic reporting prevails. Once the author expresses his own observations of the disaster and offers his perspective, he ventures into the biased territory. Opinions should be expressed by quotations from victims of the storm, and both sides should be equally represented. It often seems like one side gets favorable treatment while the other is vilified. And that is based solely on the beliefs of the writer. Impartiality is ignored because the writer has a bias against one side and cannot force himself to be objective. 

As the title of this blog says, journalism HAS changed, and readership statistics show it. Who, what, when, where, why, and how still exist but are interspersed with observations and opinions of the writer that give the article a desired perspective. If you don’t like George W. Bush, your perspective of the events surrounding hurricane Katrina are going to be judged from that frame of reference. Human nature will not allow one with a staunch position to be impartial. When you loathe someone, it’s difficult to be impartial toward them. 

Later in my research, I came upon a 21st century description of who, what, when, where, and why. In this version, the reader is given the facts, true, but in each of the five questions the writer also poses scenarios that require a conclusion.

WHO is affected? WHO benefits? WHO loses?

WHAT does this mean for the reader?

WHEN will the effects be felt?

WHERE should readers go to learn more?

WHY is this important in the big picture? WHY should readers care?

In the 21st century, the journalist’s story doesn’t just present the facts, it also draws conclusions and makes predictions based on the perspective(s) of the writer. The reader doesn’t just receive factual information; he receives interpretation that isn’t always fair and impartial. Many readers don’t recognize the influence this has on their thinking, but there’s no question it does. 

So where do we go from here? I really don’t know. In the past, I eagerly looked forward to reading the newspaper every day, but now I don’t even take a paper. When an article starts out, “Guess what so-and-so did, now? What a buffoon!” I think I am reading the editorial page and not front page news! Journalists are free to have and express their opinions, but those opinions should be reserved for the editorial page and not be injected into the tone of factual news stories. I just want to know what Mr. Smith said to Congress and not be told his comments were “controversial.” It’s my place to decide that, not the reporter’s. 

As Sgt. Joe Friday said in every single episode of “Dragnet,” “Just the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts!” That’s a credo that today’s journalists should revisit; I’m doubtful they will.

References:—The 5 W’s (and 1H) that should be asked of every project!


Covello, V.T. Keeping your head in a crisis: Responding to communication challenges posed by Bio-terrorism and emerging infectious disease. Assoc State Terr Health Ofcrs 2003. 

Google: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How

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  1. You are spot on about the newspapers and news shows of today. It is sad to see that the news is reported in such a way that the reader is left wondering what really happened. I still enjoy reading the newspaper, but I admit the comics are my favorite part.

  2. The Indpls Star, that both you and I delivered diligently back in the day, is obviously not the same. I subscribe to their digital edition and haven’t purchased a physical copy in several years. The only usable news in it anymore is sports, weather, and obits. I rarely read any other articles due to the obvious bias. I may even drop the digital edition at next renewal.

    I am just amazed at the swill that they publish, disguised as “news”. Party line garbage. It would be laughable, if it wasn’t so serious! Fortunately, no one reads the paper anymore. The internet gives us alternatives.

    1. Amen, Eric. I always knew you were an intelligent guy. These newspapers think we’re all stupid. That’s why I mentioned the four front page articles in the Star that day. Only one was a true news story. It’s all promoting a cultural revolution that people our age aren’t woke enough to approve. Well, we’ll all be gone when that occurs.

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