PUBLIC EDITOR: Health and Science articles have to start telling us the point

Writers should begin including nut grafs in their articles to better organize their ideas

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H&S’s articles often fail to answer one question — why should I care?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Health and Science section writes articles that span a variety of topics — where’s the best place to exercise in Charlottesville on a budget? What is the University doing to promote energy conservation? What was the effect of Clark Hall’s $2 million water and energy infrastructure upgrade?  

While all are intriguing and important questions, H&S’s articles often fail to answer one — why should I care? This problem could be ameliorated if writers began to include a nut graf at the beginning of their stories.

A nut graf is a term journalists use to refer to a paragraph after the lede that summarizes the story for the reader and hints at its central theme. In an article from Poynter, writer Chip Scanlan said the nut graf has several purposes, such as explaining why the story is important, why it’s timely and why the reader should care about it. Though Scanlan’s piece was published 16 years ago, his ideas regarding how nut grafs enhance articles are still pertinent. 

On Aug. 23, H&S published the article, “‘When in Doubt, Build a Bridge’: U.Va. psychology research on adolescent friendships and relationships highlights their importance later in life.’” The story began in 1998, when a University psychology professor started a project with the goal of proving that “people’s functionalities are not all pre-determined by genes.”

Yet, the article doesn’t appear to discuss his current projects until much later, which left me wondering whether I was reading about a recent newsworthy development or a summary of the professor’s research. Without a nut graf, the purpose and the timeliness of the article was unclear to me. It wasn’t until the 11th paragraph that the writer referenced the professor’s current work, a program called “The Connection Project.” 

Another article, also published Aug. 23, has a similar issue. While the headline reads, “Social Issues in Medicine class partners with Charlottesville agencies to address social determinants,” none of these Charlottesville agencies are mentioned until the 12th paragraph. A nut graf would be the ideal place to reference these agencies and provide a brief summary of why their partnership with the class is worth reading about. 

Instead, the writer uses the top of the story to describe the class and why it exists. Including this sort of context is important. H&S articles consistently provide relevant and helpful background information, which is especially beneficial for readers, like myself, who are interested in these subjects but don’t have the breadth of knowledge needed to fully understand the issues. 

However, when these articles dive into detailed background without clearly stating the article’s direction, the reader can feel confused about where it’s going and have less of a desire to continue reading. 

The article “Strength in sweetness: U.Va. professor discovers unexpected trait of sugar” published Aug. 2, contains a nut graf-like sentence at the end of the first paragraph when it briefly explains the result of the professor’s research. 

“Thanks to Egelman and his lab, the science community now knows that these pili are filled with strengthening sugar molecules that enable archaea to survive in extreme temperatures — like those of volcanic hot springs,” it reads.

This is a good inclusion — it tells me why this story is newsworthy. Still, the article doesn’t tell me — at the beginning or anywhere else — why I should care that a particular single-celled organism is filled with a strengthening sugar molecule. 

At the heart of the question, “why should I care?” are more constructive queries that writers must consider when reporting their stories — what is the impact of this? What are the effects? How does this involve my readers? These types of explanations are especially critical for articles in a section like H&S, where the stories are based more on features and less on time-sensitive or breaking news, and their significance isn’t as clear. 

In order to accomplish the task of writing a successful nut graf, editors should first ask themselves why they’re assigning or writers should ask themselves why they want to report a particular story. H&S Editor Zoe Ziff said she assigns stories based on her writers’ interests and expertise, while also determining what she believes is important and significant to cover. 

Reporters have to be prepared to ask their interviewees deeper questions — not just the “whats” and the “hows” but also the “whys” and the “why nots.” These answers will often explain the impact or the effects of a particular phenomenon. 

Lastly, the writer should be able to summarize the story as succinctly as possible. If the article can’t be described in two sentences or less, then it’s likely that the story needs a tighter angle and clearer direction.

With these principles in mind, writers will be equipped to write an effective nut graf. Every article is published for a reason. Using a nut graf to make that reason clear leads to a better-organized story and a more engaged audience.

Alexis Gravely is the Public Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.gravely@cavalierdaily.com.

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