Sunday, February 5, 2012

Five Ws


In journalism, the Five Ws (also known as the Five Ws (and one H), or the Six Ws) is a concept in news style, research, and in police investigations that are regarded as basics in information-gathering.[1] It is a formula for getting the "full" story on something. The maxim of the Five Ws (and one H) is that for a report to be considered complete it must answer a checklist of six questions, each of which comprises an interrogative word:[2]

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

The principle underlying the maxim is that each question should elicit a factual answer — facts necessary to include for a report to be considered complete.[3] Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no".

In British education, the Five Ws are used in Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) lessons.[4]


This section focuses on the history of the series of questions as a way of formulating or analyzing rhetorical questions, and not the theory of circumstances in general.[5]

The rhetor Hermagoras of Temnos, as quoted in pseudo-Augustine's De Rhetorica[6] defined seven "circumstances" (μόρια περιστάσεως 'elements of circumstance'[7]) as the loci of an issue:

Quis, quid, quando, ubi, cur, quem ad modum, quibus adminiculis.[8][9]
(Who, what, when, where, why, in what way, by what means)

Cicero had a similar concept of circumstances, but though Thomas Aquinas attributes the questions to Cicero, they do not appear in his writings. Similarly, Quintilian discussed loci argumentorum, but did not put them in the form of questions.[8]

Victorinus explained Cicero's system of circumstances by putting them into correspondence with Hermagoras's questions:[8]

quis=persona; quid=factum; cur=causa; ubi=locus; quando=tempus; quemadmodum = modus; quib/adminiculis=facultas

Julius Victor also lists circumstances as questions.[8]

Boethius "made the seven circumstances fundamental to the arts of prosecution and defense":

Quis, quid, cur, quomodo, ubi, quando, quibus auxiliis.[8]
(Who, what, why, how, where, when, with what)

The question form was taken up again in the 12th century by Thierry de Chartres and John of Salisbury.[8]

To administer suitable penance to sinners, the 21st canon of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) enjoined confessors to investigate both sins and the circumstances of the sins. The question form was popular for guiding confessors, and it appeared in several different forms:[10]

Quis, quid, ubi, per quos, quoties, cur, quomodo, quando.[11]
Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando.[12]
Quis, quid, ubi, cum quo, quotiens, cur, quomodo, quando.[13]
Quid, quis, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando.[14]
Quid, ubi, quare, quantum, conditio, quomodo, quando: adiuncto quoties.[15]

The method of questions was also used for the systematic exegesis of a text.[16]

Later, Thomas Wilson wrote in English verse:

Who, what, and where, by what helpe, and by whose:
Why, how, and when, doe many things disclose.[17]

In 19th century America, Prof. William Cleaver Wilkinson popularized the "Three Ws" – What? Why? What of it? – as a method of bible study in the 1880s, though he did not claim originality. This became the "Five Ws", though the application was rather different from that in journalism:

"What? Why? What of it?" is a plan of study of alliterative methods for the teacher emphasized by Professor W.C. Wilkinson not as original with himself but as of venerable authority. "It is, in fact," he says, "an almost immemorial orator's analysis. First the facts, next the proof of the facts, then the consequences of the facts. This analysis has often been expanded into one known as "The Five Ws:" "When? Where? Whom? What? Why?" Hereby attention is called, in the study of any lesson: to the date of its incidents; to their place or locality; to the person speaking or spoken to, or to the persons introduced, in the narrative; to the incidents or statements of the text; and, finally, to the applications and uses of the lesson teachings.[18]

The "Five Ws" (and one H) were memorialized by Rudyard Kipling in his "Just So Stories" (1902), in which a poem accompanying the tale of "The Elephant's Child" opens with:

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.

By 1917, the "Five Ws" were being taught in high-school journalism classes,[19] and by 1940, the "Five Ws" were being characterized as old-fashioned and fallacious:

The old-fashioned lead of the five Ws and the H, crystallized largely by Pulitzer's "new journalism" and sanctified by the schools, is widely giving way to the much more supple and interesting feature lead, even on straight news stories.[20]

All of you know about — and I hope all of you admit the fallacy of — the doctrine of the five Ws in the first sentence of the newspaper story.[21]

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