The 5 Ws (and an H) of Journalism

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Midsection Of Journalist Holding Microphones While Writing On Note Pad

Mihajlo Maricic/Getty Images

The questions a journalist answers in the lead of a conventional newspaper article are

  • who
  • what
  • when
  • where
  • why
  • how

They are also known as the Five W's and an H and reporters' questions.

The 5Ws + H formula has been attributed to English rhetorician Thomas Wilson (1524-1581), who introduced the method in his discussion of the "seven circumstances" of medieval rhetoric:

Who, what, and where, by what helpe, and by whose,
Why, how and when, doe many things disclose.

— The Arte of Rhetorique, 1560

Examples and Observations

"It is not often one finds a walk-in refrigerator in a private home. When it happens, even the most hard-boiled of home reporters may be so flummoxed that she reverts to the journalism basics: Who? What? When? Where? Why? In this case, the who is simple enough—Neal I. Rosenthal, founder of the wine importing business that bears his name; the where is his newly renovated house in Dutchess County, about two and a half hours north of New York City.
"But why a fridge you can walk into?
"'Another moment of excesses,' Mr. Rosenthal says of the refrigerator, which cost $23,000. He has, after all, just completed the last step in a $3 million-plus renovation."
— Joyce Wadler, "In Dutchess County, a Wine Merchant’s Renovated Home." The New York Times, June 19, 2008
"News stories are about providing information, and there is nothing more frustrating for the reader that finishing a story with unanswered questions still hanging. Journalism students are taught about the five Ws: who, what, when, where and why. They are a useful tool to check you have covered all the bases, though not all will always apply."
— Peter Cole, "News Writing." The Guardian, Sep. 25, 2008

Journalists' questions

"Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? or the questions that are referred to as the five Ws and one H, have been the mainstay of newsrooms across the country. Likewise, these questions have not lost their value in classroom instruction, regardless of the content area. Having your students answer these questions focuses their attention on the specifics of a given topic."
— Vicki Urquhart and Monette McIver, Teaching Writing in the Content Areas. ASCD, 2005

S-V-O Sentences and the 5W's and an H

"Subject-verb-object is the preferred sentence organization pattern in journalistic writing. It's easy to read and understand. ... S-V-O sentences pack in enough of the who, what, where, when, why and how for readers to have an overview of the story in one sentence. ...
"These 5 Ws and an H leads from wire services tell the whole story:
AUSTIN—Texas' (where) Destinee Hooker, the two-time defending NCAA high jump champion (who), will skip track (what) this season (when) to train with the U.S. women's national volleyball team (why) before the Olympics.
SALT LAKE CITY—Tag Elliott (who) of Thatcher, Utah, was in critical condition one day after surgery (what) to repair extensive facial injuries sustained in a collision with a bull (why).
Elliott, 19, was riding a 1,500 pound bull named Werewolf on Tuesday (when) in the Days of '47 Rodeo (where) when their heads smacked together (how).
S-V-O is the preferred sentence order in broadcast as well, because it creates easy-to-say units of thought that listeners can understand and absorb while the sportscaster is speaking. Online readers read in chunks: a blurb, a lead, a paragraph. They, too, are looking for easy-to-read, easy-to-understand information, and that's what S-V-O sentences deliver."
— Kathryn T. Stofer, James R. Schaffer, and Brian A. Rosenthal, Sports Journalism: An Introduction to Reporting and Writing. Rowman & Littlefield, 2010
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The 5 Ws (and an H) of Journalism." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). The 5 Ws (and an H) of Journalism. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The 5 Ws (and an H) of Journalism." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).