Inverted pyramids in print media

Inverted pyramid is a metaphor that illustrates how information should be structured or presented in a text. Journalists have long adhered to the inverted pyramid format. To understand what an inverted pyramid format means, one has to imagine the shape of an upside down triangle. As rightly put by Ken Blake, to comprehend the inverse pyramid one needs to “picture an upside-down triangle — one with the narrow tip pointing downward and the broad base pointing upward.” Metaphorically, the broad base represents the most important/useful information in a text and the narrow tip represents the least useful information.

There are several stories that talk about the beginning of inverted pyramid format in American journalism. Perhaps the most popular myth is that the inverted pyramid story form came into use during the Civil War. Everett M. Rogers, in his textbook on media named Communication Technology, wrote that Associated Press reporters during the Civil War were instructed “to put the most important facts in the first sentence of the news story, with less crucial information in each succeeding sentence.”

During the Civil War, reporters in the field who wired their stories on the day’s battles relied on telegraph lines. However, telegraph lines often failed, thus the reporters had to make sure they sent the most important facts of their news story first. Thus, even if a telegraph line got disconnected during a story, at least the most important part would probably get through.

Another sect of journalism historians believe that technological constraints of telegraph cannot be accounted for the change that occurred in newspaper writing during the Civil war. According to them, it was the exorbitant charges of telegraph lines that led to the departure of traditional and slow – paced way of news writing. Telegraph lines were expensive to use, they charged by the word. Newspapers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in telegraph costs to report the Civil War. Thus, the expensive distribution cost influenced a new kind of writing that departed from the flowery language of the 19th century and was succinct.

However, some researchers who have studied the news writing style of the popular American papers during the Civil War find numerous examples of stories written in long winded way rather than the “first news first” style. According to David T. Z. Mindich, a journalism historian, “the inverted pyramid was born with the coverage of Lincoln’s death.”


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