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STEP ONE: The Five Wʹs

The five things that a new reporter learns to cover in every article are also the things you need to consider as you look at a text or a picture. Before you start looking at it closely, glance over the document and try to answer these questions. You may not be able to answer all five of them at first.

1. Who created it? Whoʹs it created for? In most texts, an authorʹs name appears near the top; sometimes, as with letters, it will be at the bottom instead. On pictures, the creatorʹs name may appear in a bottom corner, in a caption outside the image, or nowhere at all. The audience usually has to be inferred from the documentʹs content. Before reading closely, just browse the item to answer questions such as, was this a private communication or a published one? Is it aimed at young people or adults? Men or women? The general public or specialists? Any specific ethnic, cultural, or language group? Any specific professional group (such as scientists, lawyers, or legislators)? People in any specific place?

2. What kind of document is it? Published book? Speech? Private diary? Letter? Magazine article? Photograph? Map? Pamphlet? Advertisement? Political handout or flyer? Unpublished meeting minutes? Legal brief? Scientific report? Poster?

3. Where was it made, and where was it supposed to be distributed? Published works will usually have a title page, masthead, or byline; letters will usually have a return address.

4. When was it made? Do you know about anything else going on at the time? Published works will usually have a clear date somewhere near the beginning; letters will usually be dated at the top.

5. Why was it made? What do you suspect its creator was trying to accomplish? Simply inform a single reader? Change public opinion? Persuade influential decisionmakers? Create a lasting historical record for posterity? Win a contest such as a court case or election? Educate a particular audience about new facts?

Knowing these things about the document in advance helps you understand what it says and to begin to reach conclusions about its accuracy, completeness, biases, and point of view.


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