Once upon a time, when journalism was journalism, gossip was gossip, and propaganda was recognized for what it is, aspiring beat writers learned to begin their news stories by answering six basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?
The useful mnemonic device has a history stretching back to Cicero, although early rhetoricians framed the questions differently, and the form evolved over time. Perhaps most famously, Rudyard Kipling, in his well-known Just So Stories (1902), included this bit of verse in a tale he called “The Elephant’s Child.”
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew).
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me, I give them all a rest.
Questions beginning with one of these six famous words are especially useful for information gathering, since none can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. Anyone hoping to write an informative news story, provide a good interview, understand historical context, or carry on enjoyable dinner conversation with a stranger soon will appreciate the importance of the “five W’s and an H”. (more…)