The fourth paragraph rule

A handy rule of thumb when reading ‘survey’ stories in the news is to check around the 4th paragraph. It’s usually around this point that the organisation behind the survey makes an appearance.

Let’s take this article from the Daily Express as an example:

We still look on the bright side of life…

IT may come as a shock to many but Britain is a “cup half full” nation, it emerged yesterday.

Despite the economic gloom, most of us try to look on the bright side of life.

Six out of every 10 people questioned by researchers claimed that, just like in the Monty Python song, they always have a positive outlook on things.

The survey explored satisfaction levels in all aspects of modern life, with the average person rating themselves 64 per cent happy. Men are more likely than women to be optimistic, the study for Benenden Health found, and the over-55s are generally more upbeat than the young.

And right on cue, Beneden Health - the health insurer behind the survey - pops up on paragraph four.

Why paragraph four? These kinds of stories are so often derived from press releases with little modification. So the placement is largely determined by the press release itself. Earlier paragraphs might be a little too blatant, while later paragraphs might be in danger of being trimmed off or subject to waning reader interest.

It’s not a hard and fast rule - the exact paragraph number varies - but it’s still a good rule of thumb for sniffing out the motivations behind a ‘story’.

Here are some more recently-published examples:

I’m not sure who to credit for the fourth paragraph rule, but I know Michael Marshall has mentioned it a few times in his excellent pieces about bad PR for the Merseyside Skeptics Society.