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The Inverted Pyramid Structure in Journalism: Meaning and Examples

For many decades, the media has been actively using the inverted pyramid structure. This style is considered the traditional scheme for writing news reports and stories.

According to the inverted pyramid, the most significant, fundamental, and interesting facts are presented at the beginning of the article, in its first paragraph, and the rest (less decisive and useful) are arranged in descending order of their value in the following paragraphs.

Some journalists are skeptical about the inverted pyramid, but despite the criticism, this principle continues to be widely used by the media.

Historical Background

Until the end of the 19th century, newspapers were created according to the traditional “slow” principle. Information was presented in small portions in chronological order, and the reader found all the most interesting at the end of the article (“they lived happily ever after”).

But everything changed with the invention of the telegraph.

The first electromagnetic telegraph was created by the Russian scientist P. L. Schilling in 1832. Subsequently, the electromagnetic telegraph was built in Germany and Great Britain, and in the USA the electromechanical type telegraph was patented by the American inventor and artist Samuel Morse (in 1840).

This event has led to a new era in art, literature, and science, thanks to which the inverted pyramid was born. 

The invention of the telegraph can be compared with the advent of the Internet, it caused such a powerful revolutionary effect. At first, simple messages were transmitted by telegraph. Later entire correspondent networks for news transmission and even individual telegraph agencies arose.

But the telegraph had one major drawback – the high cost of use. The telegraph expenses were so high that it was necessary to write concisely and with a minimum of detail. As a result, a new literary style has arisen: one of the most influential styles of the 20th century, a type of journalism that is as objective as possible, devoid of any prejudice and personal opinion.

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When the Inverted Pyramid Arose: Myths

One of the myths says that the inverted pyramid structure arose during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Reporters had to quickly telegraph only the most important breaking news from the scene because at any moment the wire could be damaged, and the connection would be lost.

But this version is unconfirmed, although it is quite plausible. The problem is that there are quite a few news stories from the Civil War that are written in the traditional chronological order, rather than in the inverted pyramid style, where the top story is in the first paragraph.

There is another version: the inverted pyramid arose at the time of coverage of the tragic death of US President Abraham Lincoln. On April 15, 1865, American newspapers received a copy of a telegram from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to a general in New York. This telegram was written with an inverted pyramid structure. Edwin Stanton was not a journalist or writer, but his message was printed by major publishing houses on the front page of their newspapers.

What Is the Inverted Pyramid Structure

An inverted pyramid structure is a way of writing a text, according to which information is structured and prioritized: its value and importance decrease from the beginning of the text to its end.

Inverted Pyramid Structure in journalism
The inverted pyramid structure

This technique is most often used in news writing but is also used in blogging, advertising brochures, and editorial columns. 

Conventionally, the inverted pyramid consists of three parts:

  1. Lead. This is the first or leading paragraph of the text, the chapeau or abstract of the article, which outlines the main idea of the text, only the most valuable information.
  2. The bulk of the text is details, evidence, photographs, quotes, etc.
  3. The final part is additional information, similar, interesting materials, and a journalistic assessment.

How to Write a News Story Using the Inverted Pyramid Structure: Example

To achieve the desired result and in the first paragraph (or paragraphs) give out only important information, journalists often use the formula “5W”: who, what, where, when, and why.

That is, at the beginning of a news story, the author must give the reader answers to the next 5 questions: what happened, when and where it happened, why, and how.

Here is how this technique is implemented in the news article:

“The largest known plant on Earth – a seagrass roughly three times the size of Manhattan – has been discovered off the coast of Australia.

Using genetic testing, scientists have determined a large underwater meadow in Western Australia is in fact one plant.

It is believed to have spread from a single seed over at least 4,500 years.

The seagrass covers about 200 sq km (77 sq miles), researchers from the University of Western Australia said.”

The following paragraphs or the bulk of the news story contain additional information: various details, explanations, statistics, quotes, reference materials, photographs and videos.

The value of information decreases from the beginning of a news text to its end:

“The team stumbled upon the discovery by accident at Shark Bay, about 800km (497 miles) north of Perth.

They had set out to understand the genetic diversity of the species – also known as ribbon weed – which is commonly found along parts of Australia’s coast.

Researchers collected shoots from across the bay and examined 18,000 genetic markers to create a “fingerprint” from each sample.

They had aimed to discover how many plants made up the meadow.

“The answer blew us away – there was just one!” said Jane Edgeloe, the study’s lead author.

“That’s it, just one plant has expanded over 180km in Shark Bay, making it the largest known plant on Earth.”

The plant is also remarkable for its hardiness, having grown in locations across the bay with wildly variable conditions.

“It appears to be really resilient, experiencing a wide range of temperatures and salinities plus extreme high light conditions, which together would typically be highly stressful for most plants,” said Dr Elizabeth Sinclair, one of the researchers.

The species generally grows like a lawn at a rate of up to 35cm (13.7in) a year. This is how researchers estimated it has taken 4,500 years to sprawl to its current size.

The research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.


Advantages and Disadvantages of the Inverted Pyramid Structure

The inverted pyramid advantages are:

  1. It saves the reader time. After reading the beginning of the article, the reader understands what this article is about and its main meaning, so he can limit himself to this and not read the news to the end.
  2. Speeds up the editor’s workflow. If the news story came out too large and complex, the editor only needs one action – to delete the last paragraphs.
  3. Keywords are collected at the beginning of the text, which improves the position of the site in the search (the website ranking).

In addition to the followers of the inverted pyramid structure, some critics say that:

  1. The inverted pyramid makes all authors faceless, depriving them of the ability to write in their own style.
  2. The inverted pyramid structure makes it difficult to perceive information and complicates readability. It so happened that it is easier for us to perceive a text with a traditional structure: when there is a little introduction, then the main idea is gradually revealed, and at the end, we are waiting for a summary and conclusions.

With the advent of Internet media, the principle of the inverted pyramid has changed. There are no such clear requirements for writing a news story, all the rules are blurred and dissolved in a huge stream of fleeting information.

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