Five things

« previous post | next post »

I've noticed recently that there's a tendency for things in the media to come in fives. Thus recently at The Hill (warning – autoplay videos): "Five things to know about Trump and NAFTA", "Five things to know about Trump’s controversial ObamaCare decision", "5 things to watch for at campaign cash deadline", "Five things to know about Trump’s immigration principles", "Five things to watch as Trump visits Puerto Rico", etc.

At the Washington Post: "Five things to watch in Alabama’s special election", "Five story lines to watch as NBA training camps get underway", "If Trump really wants to fix troubled schools, here are five things he could do", "Why are there protests in Poland? Here are the five things you need to know", "Five things I learned about Russia last week", etc.

At the New York Times: "Esteem, Money and Mystery: 5 Things to Know About the Nobels", "Five Things I Hate About New Cars", "Five Things to Remember Before You Renovate", "Five Things to Do This Weekend", "Five Things T Editors Are Really Into Right Now", etc.

At Politico: "5 things we learned from the Senate's Russia probe update", "Five things to watch in the Alabama runoff election", "Virginia governor's primary: 5 things to watch", "SESSIONS TESTIFIES TODAY – Five things to watch during today’s hearing", "5 things to know about Trump's FBI pick Christopher Wray", etc.

At The Independent: "Five things we learned from Crystal Palace's stunning upset victory over Premier League champions Chelsea", "Five things to look out for when the IMF and the World Bank meetings happen in Washington this week", "Five things we learned from Watford's superb comeback win against a misfiring Arsenal", "Five things to look out for in the economy this week", "Five things to bear in mind as Hurricane Irma hits the US", etc.

Things come in other cardinalities, of course, but in general five sticks out:

two things three things four things five things six things seven things
Bing News  16.5M  8.39M  2.35M  17.4M  3.84M  2.71M
 The Hill  738  263  66  967  9  34
 WaPo  5952  1923  438  1174  159  145
Politico 1162 358 87  453  59  57
 Atlantic  1830  464  98  170  19  14
Economist 4180  1580 128 252 15 16

I wonder when the press turned pentatonic?

Anyhow, these days the ratio of "five things" to "four things" seems to be a kind of click-baitiness index.



  1. ardj said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

    Not that I doubt you, but what is the universe you sampled and how was the sample drawn ?
    More generally, if one is trying to put together a list, more or less egregious, as clickbait or just because that is what newspapers have to do, then 3,4 or 5 seem obvious choices; unless a) it is rely serious in which case one or two would do, or b) it is complete nonsense (how to lose 30 lbs in 2 days and improve your smile) in which case it will be 10

    [(myl) The investigatory dynamics were like this:

    (1) Notice the meme in The Hill;
    (2) Wonder whether there's really a local maximum at 5;
    (3) Run searches and discover that there is;
    (4) Wonder how widespread it is;
    (5) Check the Bing index's (implausible) counts, since Google News no longer gives them;
    (6) Check a few other sources via local searches;
    (7) Conclude that a local maximum at 5 is really A Thing, and not just stereotyping and confirmation bias.


  2. Ray said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 5:49 pm

    on my teevee news, it's "3 things you need to know," "3 to go," "3 on your side," "today's top 3 stories" (all on channel 3, philadelphia)

  3. John Spevacek said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

    I suppose 5 paragraphs, citing 5 different publications is just coincidence. OR IS IT?

  4. aaron said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 6:15 pm

    Five things is also an enduringly popular fanfiction form, see here :

  5. Arthur Baker said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 8:01 pm

    Well, five is a "round" number, or so people seem to thinkk. I've often remarked that five is a favourite number in quiz shows. Many quiz shows past and present have awarded five points, or a multiple of five, for a correct answer or series of correct answers. And if there is never a circumstance in which a non-multiple of five points is awarded (and there almost always isn't), one has to ask why they don't just award one point. That's how we normally count.

    A couple of examples. "University Challenge" on British TV (not sure whether they still run it, but it was around as early as the mid-1960s. Starter questions were worth 10 points. Answering a starter correctly gave contestants the chance to answer further questions, with a possible reward of 25. I don't ever recall seeing a score which wasn't a multiple of five. Why didn't they score starters as two, with further answers scoring 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5? The effect would have been the same.

    Another: ABCTV (Australia) currently screens "Hard Quiz". Five points per correct answer, minus five for an incorrect answer, ten points if you "steal" an answer on another contestant's special subject. I've never seen a score which wasn't a multiple of five. Why not 1 for correct, 2 for a steal? Same effect.

  6. Y said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 8:10 pm

    Or possibly "four" is anomalously low, while "six things" is avoided for the difficult consonant cluster.

    Ghits for "n surprising things":
    two: 31,900
    three: 93,900
    four: 3,360
    five: 87,700
    six: 68,900
    seven: 6,050
    eight: 2,450

  7. Christian Weisgerber said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 8:48 pm

    Ah, the naive quoting of Google's initial estimate of hits… which is utterly unreliable and frequently an overestimate by orders of magnitude. Clicking through to the final page of hits produces these figures for "n surprising things":

    two: 190
    three: 173
    four: 110
    five: 313
    six: 156
    seven: 129
    eight: 91

  8. Mark S said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 9:22 pm

    'The Onion' routinely parodies the "Five Things" meme, e.g.

    [(myl) I should have known that if it was a real thing, the Onion would have it as a regular feature.]

  9. Weltanschauung said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 10:38 pm

    From the biblical book of Proverbs, Chapter 30:

    There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough:

    The grave; and the barren womb; the earth that is not filled with water; and the fire that saith not, It is enough.

    There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:

    The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

  10. D.O. said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 11:06 pm

    "N things" is an obvious clickbait. I have to yet find a reason why reading "Five (or six, or ten, or two, or seven) things to watch in today's most funny kitten videos" is any better than "What to watch in today's etc." Among places I visit, annoys me the most with it's materials entitled "Why everyone who disagrees with us is a contemptible idiot in 29 charts"

  11. Stephen said,

    October 15, 2017 @ 7:52 am

    @Arthur Baker

    University Challenge is still on air (it stopped in 1987 but restarted in 1994) and it still has the format of 10 points for a starter and 3 times 5 points for the bonus.

  12. bks said,

    October 15, 2017 @ 8:50 am

    Five things fit on one screen. Ten require scrolling.

  13. Scott said,

    October 15, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    Odd numbers are a tradition in marketing/sales since they stay with people (strange but proven – look at the number of prices that end with .95, .97 or .99), so it would be "One weird fact" (counting one as odd, which gets contentious)"Three facts" or "Five things you have to know". I think @BKS has it in that five will likely fit on a page and scale well to mobile readers.

  14. Theophylact said,

    October 15, 2017 @ 11:31 am

    The Washington Post also has a regular feature in its Sunday "Outlook" section: "Five Myths". (This week it's Hollywood.)

  15. SlideSF said,

    October 15, 2017 @ 11:46 am

    You didn't sample 10, which I suspect you would see a lot of, based on my personal observations. Ten is a nice round number, as Arthur Baker has suggested. Perhaps in instances where the authors cannot come up with 10 items, they round down to five so as not to have an "awkward" number.


               five    nine    ten   eleven
    Bing News  17.4M   0.9M   3.99M  0.018M
    The Hill   967      2      8      0
    Politico   453     13     27      3

    Looks like 10 is more common than 9 or eleven, but way fewer than five…]

  16. Lazar said,

    October 15, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

    @Weltanschauung: Don't forget Armaments, Chapter 2:

    And the LORD spake, saying, "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 15, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    Looks like a particularly simple example of the Law of Fives to me.

  18. Jason M said,

    October 15, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

    I was going first to enlighten by citing both 2 Armaments (read that the way Trump would, i.e., "two Armaments" for full effect) and King Arthur's proclivity to local maxima in his enumerating, but @Lazar beat me to that line of supporting evidence.

    So I will just wonder without doing any work myself if news based in other countries (UK, Australia, Canada) and other languages trend the same (how about French vs. English Canadian news as an internally controlled example?)….

  19. ohwilleke said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 4:50 am

    "Five things is also an enduringly popular fanfiction form," . . . .

    As the link explains, one of the reasons that this became so popular is that it is trans-substantive. It doesn't matter whether you are writing about Smurfs or Star Wars or a Police Procedural. You can still easily harness the form to your desire, and formula writing is particularly well suited to people who aren't very good at writing.

    But, these justifications don't just apply to Fan Fiction. You can write "five things" about pretty much anything, even if you are a relatively inept writer.

  20. Birdseeding said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 5:11 am

    I'm wondering if there's a trend over time? I may be totally off-base here, and this is pure speculation, but there's been a tendency in the past few years for YouTube videos to go from a longer format (~20 minutes) to a shorter format (~4 minutes). "Top five" or "five things" is a very straightforward format for a short video, much more so than bigger numbers.

  21. richardelguru said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 7:04 am

    The 'five thing phenomenon' in the media seems obvious: most people employed in that industry can only count on their fingers, using one hand as an abacus and the other to work it.
    The lesser prominence of three is due to unfortunate industrial accidents (possibly whilst making rude gestures in the UK).

  22. Faldone said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 8:32 am

    I noticed in your chart "two things" outscores "five things in four of the six categories. On the other hand, there's the well known phenomenon everything comes in threes. Faith, hope and Charity. Three Little Pigs. The Genii's three wishes. Surely, Goodness and Mercy. Borders, Books and Music. Three Billygoats Gruff.

  23. DWalker07 said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 11:35 am

    Right, it used to be "10 things you need to know about zzz" but with shortened attention spans, it's now 5.

  24. Jim said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

    5 things would seem to match to counting on your fingers.

    Unless it's a Top 10 list, listicles usually avoid 10 because it is presumed to be either padded or incomplete, too round of a number.

  25. Matthew McIrvin said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 10:09 pm

    @Scott: Weird tricks do seem to come in 1s.

  26. Lane said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 8:54 am

    Not surprised to see my publication seems to prefer "three things"; it's a bit of a joke in our editorial meetings that we're always calling on governments, companies, etc to do three things to clean up their act. I wonder if "three things" is more common in our leaders than in our news copy.

  27. hemaworstje said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

    most mediashizzle from the State is the ten of this the top ten you must see etc.that is an auto skip for me , an indicator that tells you the editor is a trendfollower instead of a creator. Garbage.useless persons and sites. very popular amongst the less educated people, the bulk.

RSS feed for comments on this post