Beyond the five W’s

September 15th, 2008 — Wordman

All introductory journalistic training starts with the “five W’s (and one H)” (who? what? when? where? why? how?), representing the types of facts that should appear in the lead of a story. Unfortunately, many journalists these days seem to think that is all they need do: find the most obvious answers to those questions, relate them, move on to the next deadline. While this passes for news, it’s not very useful for actual understanding. The superficial answers to these questions are almost never the truth necessary to draw real conclusions about an event. That requires real digging into these questions (particularly “why?”) and since that is actually hard, you get the kind of limp, gloss-over journalism-like news of today.

Take this CNN story, for example: Nigeria militants ‘raze’ Shell oil complex. As per basic training, the story holds the five W’s:

  • Who?: The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)
  • What?: “attacked Shell’s Alakiri flow station, gas plant and field logistics base… killing a guard and wounding four others.”
  • When?: “Monday”
  • Where?: “southwest of Port Harcourt”, Nigeria’s delta region
  • Why?: “The rebel group hopes to secure a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth for people in the delta, where more than 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.”
  • How?: They “‘stormed’ the flow station complex…set fire to the facility and ‘razed it to the ground.'”

So, what do you know? Some people blew up an oil station in Nigeria. You’re told that they want the oil wealth for themselves. That sounds reasonable. On to the next story. A few basic problems: first, if the intent is to gain the oil wealth for themselves, why are they destroying the facilities that would let them claim it, rather than taking them over? Seems like a bad strategy. Maybe they have good reasons for this. Maybe there are extenuating circumstances. Maybe they just failed basic economics. The point is, this is a pretty obvious question to at least ask, but journalists don’t seem to be interested. They don’t seem concerned that the basic motivation they give for the event doesn’t really make any sense. It’s almost as if the intent is to sound informative, not actually be informative.

I was on a jury once, and it was very frustrating to watch the lawyers work. You kept wanting to scream at them to ask a certain question, usually one that never came. Is it important they didn’t ask it? Was not asking it strategy, or just incompetence? Who knows? I’m just a juror, so can’t actually ask any questions. Reading modern news stories is much the same experience, except I’m just some guy at a desk and not, you know, the person getting paid to actually report on what’s happening in front of his own eyes.

I looked through the top 10 hits on Google for this particular news story. Some were better than others. Some pointed out that the group is “well-equipped”, “heavily armed”, and using “dozens of speedboats” and “dynamite and other explosives”. Many mention that the group is responsible for reducing Nigeria’s oil output by a 20-25%.

None of these stories, however, even asked the question to which I wanted the answer, much less answered it: given that this is a force of “indigenous people” and most of the indigenous people live on “less than a dollar a day”, from where is MEND getting the money for all these weapons, speedboats and explosives?

A bit more Googling revealed not much more information. Someplace called the International Crisis Group, summarizes the situation in Nigeria and at least says that MEND “has not revealed the identity of its leaders or the source of its funds but its actions demonstrate that it is better armed and organised than previous militant groups.” Contrary to the journalists, this group does care about these funds, claiming they come from oil theft and “protection” rackets, where oil companies pay to avoid being targeted. This is at least more informative, even if it doesn’t necessarily match the current set of attacks. Did Shell just refuse to pay and are now being made an example? Has MEND graduated past the need for such financing? Gee, if only there was some kind of publication or company that would send people to these places, with the job of asking these kinds of questions and reporting back to us.

As before, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Until I do, I will continue to foam at the mouth about it. Sorry.

By the way, I have a theory that this type of shallow journalism also explains why more people seem to be willing to accept conspiracy theories these days. Since the news isn’t actually providing explanations of anything (or, worse, those they do offer contain obvious flaws), people just assume that something else must be going on that makes more sense, and will go through paradoxically nonsensical contortions to guess at it.

For example, with this Nigerian story, a) the attacks seemed geared at stopping oil production, rather than gaining control of it and b) that would decrease the supply of oil and c) raise the price, which d) would be good for other oil producers. Since e) no other theory seems to exist, I’m just going to assume that OPEC is funding these people. Unless I lived in the European Union, when I would assume that Russia was doing it. (Look! I’m halfway to believing things without facts, just like religion would have me do. Must be a conspiracy.)