Thursday , November 30 2023

What is Contextual Journalism?


Let’s begin with the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on the 3rd of January 2020, by the United States of America. Most people outside Iran never heard that name or knew about the man until his killing by the US. Much of those who will be reading or listening to news about him have shallow or completely nonexistent knowledge of the man’s past activities which either justify his killing or make the incident and unfortunate blunder commuted by Donald Trump who gave the execution order.

Depending on the news channel you are watching or the news sources speaking (including analysts who the news channels invited to speak on the incident) you either see Gen. Soleimani as a villain that deserved to die or a gentleman lived by his people. Depending on the background provided by each news channel, you either see him as a terrorist or as the leader of Iran’s special forces who is a legitimate commander. Put in another say, depending on the background (images, words, sounds and footages) provided on the man’s life, you either see him as a good man or a bad guy. That is what context in news writing and presentation basically refers too. This is called contextual journalism.

What is contextual journalism?

Contextual journalism refers to providing ‘relevant’ background, perspectives, depth and hindsight for audience to better understand news. Context in news reporting is the trend in today’s dynamic, sophisticated world with evolving stories that resonate across the globe. News context could apply to both local and international stories. Context makes it easier for the audience to understand the news better, not based on the incident that happened but on the circumstances that led to the incident. It is the little more information needed to make a story more meaningful to the audience.

Here’s an interesting thought expressed by Robin Stewart, public affairs analyst, from the perspective of how news context would help the audience make more sense out of media reports;

If journalists want to help us understand the world, they need to provide some context.

For example, an article about Brexit politics includes the sentence: “Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrat party and an arch opponent of Brexit, [criticized] the announcements and their timing.”

Since many readers don’t know who Vince Cable is, the information about his position and views are necessary to help make sense of the quote. Without it, for most readers the sentence would translate to: “Someone criticized the announcements and their timing.” Which of course is not particularly useful or interesting.

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However, news reports rarely provide this type of context for numbers. For example, many recent stories cover the news that “the president is demanding $5 billion in funding for a border wall” but very few of them include the context needed to understand that number. Is $5 billion a lot or a little in this scenario? For most readers, the sentence may as well be: “The president is demanding a number of dollars.”

Context is the background narrative necessary for the audience to better understand the news. You might say contextual journalism is another name for interpretative reporting, indepth reporting, or just providing background to a story. Well, even if you don’t do outright interpretation, the extra facts create context for the audience members to do the interpretation by themselves. Context provides relevance to a story, depending on the subject. Terry Heaton, in an article, described context as the new flavor in journalism. According to him;

What is context? Context is viewed as the missing element in reporting today and something that the audience not only needs, but according to this group of thinkers, wants. We can argue about that all day, but the subject is compelling and thought-provoking, and it deserves our attention. Context is what, the discussion concludes, reporters tend to take for granted when they’re writing, because they assume that their audience — whether print or broadcast — already knows the background information necessary to fully understand the latest development in an ongoing story.

This lack of perspective is the major contributing factor to shallowness in journalism — to the surface, horse race aspects of the news. That, these thinkers conclude is one of the things wrong with “the press.”

Context could lead to bias among audience

Context could be subjective. This is not strange because there is an element of subjectivity in every aspect of journalism. There is even subjectivity in objectivity, to an extent. After all, it is what you decide to select among several news stories that will be regarded as the most important (to you, not to every other reporter).

Some views suggest that delivering just the facts to viewers minimizes some forms of bias. This is because news context creates perspective for audience. Context is sometimes viewed as an attempt by the media to sway opinion or portray one agenda over another. So some people prefer just the facts, not context. The interconnected and complex nature of today’s society is such that events that occur in one part of the world resonate in other parts. An offhand comment by a politician might anger a certain demographic, and companies that support that politician would lose business from that demographic as a result. This is possible side effect of context in news presentation.

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However, contextual journalism is still very relevant to make sense out of complex and evolving news breaks in modern society. News context tries to provide an atmosphere of understanding for the story, such as what led up to it, what could happen as a result, or similar events. Contextual journalism can, when dealing with technical fields, attempt to simplify concepts for the average viewer. It makes the audience ‘informable’ as it gives them background or basis to form opinion on an incident. Much as contextual journalism could lead to bias, fact-checking by journalists to present relevant build up to an incident is very essential in modern journalism.

News context could differ among media

Context is not always same for every news channel. This is why when you watch Al Jazeera, CNN and CCTV (China Central Television) reporting the same issue you wonder whether the issue happened differently, to suit it channel. The background analysis provided as foundation for audience to have a perspective of the incident is always different.

Factors that could influence news context

Much as journalism preaches objectivity and professionalism, certain covert factors could influence news context. Context could be based on such factors as media ownership, philosophy, political or ideological affiliation. This is primarily why context for BBC, CNN and Sky News could be different on certain news stories. While the CNN which is seen to be objective towards activities of Donald Trump for instance, might condemn him for what they feel he has not done right, BBC (which is owned by an allied nation that wants to maintain a good relationship with Trump) night be careful with the context provided on that same story. Sky News is also a British company which might have a different context for CNN.

Basically the difference in context between media houses could be dependent on the difference in ideology of the channels, the way they perceive an issue, their attachment to the key players in the story (for International news) and probably to an extent, the philosophy of the station, that is, what they believe is the best way to practice journalism. Difference in context has little to do with professionalism in journalism (especially on international news involving political issues). It is more of ideological leaning. But when talking about non-political news, professionalism plays a role in news context because it is only a well-informed, well-trained journalist that will understand the value of contextual journalism and provide the most appropriate background foundation for audience to understand an incident.

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Summing Up

Context is the now best thing for journalism especially in today’s world. But it needs to be done cautiously and professionally, not based on the biases of a journalist or media house. The American Press Institute says that “good stories provide context.” The institute suggests that a journalist should always ask “What background would a newcomer who is affected by the story need to know so that they might care about it?” This is a crucial question that could provide context for the audience to properly digest a news story. Lack of context in news presentation could lead to ‘information indigestion’, that is, the audience might find it difficult to understand what has been reported. Context is used to get stories into the minds of the audience.

David Halberstam, a 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner for his coverage of the war in Vietnam for the New York Times and best-selling author of The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, and many other works of non-fiction, talked about the value of providing context in a conversation with Bill Kovach on Nov. 9, 1996.

We can make all kinds of stories interesting if we work at it…like the great Jimmy Breslin story: The day that John Kennedy was killed…everyone covered the funeral. He went and found the man who dug Kennedy’s grave. Use your imagination, be creative.

Making stories important. A sense of context. And what a journalist has to do in order to get stories into the minds of the people. To show why this particular piece of information, why a profile, is important. Why these things amount to something and provide a way to understand the world that helps you – the context of the stories is often more important than the event itself.

One of the reasons Bill Clinton was so successful is he spent his time designing a context within which he could embed himself. And the journalist needs to figure out how to provide a context outside of entertainment that works.


Context is very relevant in modern journalism. The world has gone beyond ‘providing just the facts’ to ‘adding a little flavor to the story’ – contextual journalism.


About Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a writer with passion for cutting-edge news

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