(Not So) Basic Journalism Skills: The Context of Context

by - July 19, 2013

In journalism school you learn a lot of things - what makes a story newsworthy, how to put your story together, AP style, etc. What isn't covered in depth is how to put your story into context for your viewers or readers.

Many of the stories we cover aren't just one-day deals. They're an issue that's built up over days, weeks, months, even years. And even if it's day one of coverage, nine times out of 10 we'll revisit the story somewhere in the future.

When you're immersed in those stories day in and day out, or even week in and week out, it's easy to take for granted that everyone knows what's going on. But that's simply not true.

There's always going to be that one person who's been living under a rock. And you can't rule out those people who watch or read every day and still can't keep it straight. Context is for them.

According to Journalism.org, the Pew Research Center's project for excellence in journalism, "Journalism is a form of cartography." Basically, we have to map it out for our audience. You can't start at point F and expect your story to have relevance. For example you can't go cover a protest over the verdict in George Zimmerman's murder trial without revisiting the verdict, and you can't revisit the verdict without explaining the charges, and the charges don't make much sense if you don't know why they were filed in the first place.

Even for those viewers/readers who've been following a story since it's inception, it's nice to lay out a timeline of events for them. That's not to say that you have to devote a lot of time or column space to those details, but in the words of my assignment editor you need a peg to hang the story on. It cuts down on confusion and helps set the tone for whatever you're covering.

There is a movement that seeks to put the context back in the news. They're calling themselves The Context Movement, and they recently had a panel at SXSW. You can read some cliff notes of that by clicking here. This group is trying to find a solution to what it calls "episodic" stories and is trying to answer this question: Why are we serving people the news without the background narrative necessary to make sense of the news?

The trend I see is that newscasts are filled with more and more content, but the context is decreasing. When you have about 12 minutes you can work with and there are 10 reporters each providing you with three minutes of content that your viewers are expecting to see, things get dicey. Fortunately, in most cases context can be provided with one sentence. It's not ideal, but it gets the job done.

In cases where you need more than a sentence but don't have the time or space, there is an easy solution. As I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, all aspects of journalism are converging in one place - the internet. We're all becoming multi-media journalists rather than a print or broadcast journalist and as such we should embrace the online counterparts of our shops. When you don't have time to break down three years of back story for today's version of your story, do it on your website and let people know they can find it there.

If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this - your audience can't take anything away from your story if they don't have the necessary information to do so. Set the scene; plot your course; start at point A. Context isn't a hard concept and it isn't difficult to incorporate. If you make it step one of your creative process, the rest is easy.

You May Also Like


  1. From a viewer standpoint ~ nice.
    From a viewer standpoint who watches and can keep up ~ still nice.

    Pegs are awesome! New word to use in my classroom this year. Always looking for new ways to tie my content material together for future retention, such as dreaded standardize test.

    I am enjoying this series of blogs.