Writing Compelling Leads

NewsThumbThe lead, which is the opening sentence of a news story, is the most crucial element of any report.

In a matter of seconds, the viewer (or, in radio, the listener) makes a decision whether to listen to the story actively or to merely "tune out" until something more interesting comes along. Even worse, the audience may simply move to another station with a more compelling story.

However, this vital part of the story, which passes by in less than 5 or 6 seconds, is the most difficult to write. It must set the tone for what follows, provide enough information to intrigue the audience, and offer enough news so it simply doesn't burn away precious seconds.

"Your greatest competition is the remote control". . . . . Don Hewitt, 60 Minutes

While there are few "perfect" leads, some are better than most. As you pursue a career in journalism, you'll encounter those leads that are memorable, those leads that are acceptable, and those that are simply not very good. And because all news stories are different from one another, you'll also learn that different methods can solve the challenges in writing good leads.

THE FIVE Ws AND H RULE

Unless the story is a feature, the lead must include an element of news. It must begin to address the traditional journalistic concept of discovering informa­tion. To guarantee that all of the important news elements are reported in a story, journalists have devised a rule that requires newswriters to answer six basic questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how. This rule is referred to as the five Ws and H rule.

At one time, most newspaper editors expected every lead to answer all of these questions. But few newspaper editors still require this, and broadcasters never follow the rule. Still, at least one or more of the questions must be answered in the lead of the story for it to be news. By the end of the story, most-if not all-of the questions should be answered.

An opening sentence that contains no news is referred to as a nonnews lead, and such leads are unacceptable in a news story. Here's an example:

Mayor Paul Savoy has met with reporters.

This lead could become news by answering some of the journalistic questions. Why did the mayor meet with reporters? What did he tell them? For example,

Wheatland Mayor Paul Savoy says the city council has two budget choices this month-either raise property taxes or close two of the fire stations.

This revised lead does not deal with all five Ws and the H, but it's a start. The who is the mayor. The what is the issue of budget woes. The where is Wheatland. The when is this month. Still unanswered are the why and the how. These ques­tions would be answered in the balance of the story-if the answers are available.

This revised lead is an example of a hard lead. Such leads address the most important aspect of a story immedi­ately. There are a variety of ways to lead your story, and all of them are exam­ined in the following sections. The decision about which kind of lead to use depends on a number of factors, but the most important is the nature of the story. Is it a feature or breaking news? Is the story sad or upbeat? Is it about people or an event? Is the story about politics, a war, a medical devel­opment, or the kidnapping of a child? Is the story brand new or a continuing one? The lead is like the foundation of a house. How the foundation is built determines how the rest of the house will look. In news, the lead sentence determines how the rest of the story should be constructed.

THE "RIGHT" EMOTION

One challenge in writing a lead is deciding on the appropriate emotion, or tone, to express in the story. The tone depends mainly on the kind of story you are going to tell. For example, if the story is about something amusing, you would establish a lighthearted tone in the lead. Let's look at an example:

A Center City schoolteacher got enough kisses today to last-well, maybe not a lifetime, but a few weeks, anyway. Mary Saint Clair kissed 110 men at the annual fund-raiser for the local zoo. At ten bucks a kiss, she raised eleven hundred dollars for the zoo. When she turned the money over to zoo officials, she joked that all the animals were not behind bars.

Even stories about accidents can sometimes be treated lightly:

"I'll never drink hot coffee in the car again." That's what Carl Wade said when he left the Center City hospital. This morning, his car struck a fire hydrant, bounced off a tree and smashed into the window of a flower shop. Wade said he had bought a container of coffee at a McDonald's drive-through. When he tried to add sugar, he spilled the coffee in his lap and lost control of the car.

Stories about tragedies, as you would expect, require a more serious, straight­ forward approach:

• It's now believed that the death toll in the earthquake in Mexico has
reached more than 50 .

• At least three people are reported dead in the collision this morning of a half-dozen cars on the freeway.

For these leads, the writers chose to give just the facts; a decision that creates a quiet tone that underscores the loss of life described in the stories. While every story requires the writer to choose a certain tone, features and nonbreak­ing news stories allow more flexibility than breaking news. Some writers are very effective at evoking joy, pathos, and other emotions from an audience through the tone they create.

TYPES OF LEADS

If you hand the same news assignment to 50 different reporters, you may likely end up with 50 different lead sentences. Each story presents its own opportu­nity to craft a good lead, while each reporter brings a unique perspective to that story. While there may not be a lead sentence that every reporter agrees is the perfect starting sentence, a number of options are available to make a lead that is better (or worse) than another.

Hard and soft leads

In choosing a lead, decide first whether it will be hard or soft. As shown in the previous example, a hard lead tells the audience the vital details of the story immediately. Hard leads are usually used for breaking news:

• At least 30 people were injured in the collapse of the building.

• More than a dozen people were arrested in the drug bust.

• The government announced today that 150 thousand more Americans were employed in November.

A soft lead takes a more subtle approach; it alerts the audience to the news that is to follow. This approach is sometimes called "warming up" the audi­ence. The following soft leads could be used for the aforementioned stories:

• A building collapses in Center City. At least 30 people have been injured.

• A major drug bust in New York City. More than a dozen people are under arrest.

• Improvement in the unemployment figures. The government announced that 150 thousand more Americans were employed in November.

Soft leads may not sound as exciting or dramatic as hard leads, but they do invite the audience to keep listening. Notice that two of the example soft leads are not full sentences but phrases that serve the same purpose as headlines in a print story. Soft leads can be helpful to listeners carrying out other tasks or fighting traffic on the way to the office by giving them time to shift their atten­tion to the news.

Many editors discourage soft leads because they tend to slow down a newscast, particularly if used too often. But if used in moderation, soft leads add variety to broadcast copy. Experienced editors tend to be flexible in dealing with a writer's style, including the kinds of leads writers choose. Good editors recognize that there is not just one way to write a story. They might say, "Well, it's not the way I would have written it, but it's not bad."

Quote leads

Sometimes a quote, like the "hot coffee" example used earlier, can provide an excellent hook for a story:

"It happened so fast, we didn't have time to take a picture. But we know what we saw." Those are the words of a hiker on the Appalachian Trail, who says there's something scary in the North Georgia mountains. Something that looks like Bigfoot.

Here is another example:

"The first thing I'm going to do is quit my job and take a trip around the world." That's what lottery winner Lawrence Atling said when he redeemed his ten million dollar winning lottery ticket.

Quote leads should be used sparingly. Unless the quote is comparatively short, the listener may miss its connection with the rest of the story.

Shotgun leads

The shotgun, or umbrella, lead can be effective for combining two or more related stories:

Forest fires continue to roar out of control in California, Oregon, and Washington State. The drought that has plagued the three states is now in its second month. Fires have scorched more than a million acres of timberland in California and another half million acres in Oregon and Washington.

The advantage of the shotgun lead is that it allows the writer to eliminate the boring alternative of reporting the fires in three separate, back-to-back stories. Here is another example:

Congress today is looking at three bills. One would make it easier for police to collect evidence, another would open up more trade with Canada, and the third would put a halt to government bailouts.

Delayed leads

Instead of loading the most important information into the top of the story, the delayed lead withholds the most important details for a few sentences.

The scene in the locker room of the Center City Rockets was quieter than usual last night although the team won by three goals. There also was a lot less swearing than usual and no nudity. Also new in the locker room last night was Julie Grice.

The sports reporter for the Center City Times is the first woman to be allowed in the team's locker room. Club officials broke the female ban after Grice threatened to go to court to win the right to enter the locker room after games.

If the delayed lead had not been used, the story probably would have started out this way:

For the first time, last night a woman reporter was allowed in the locker room of the Center City Rockets.

The delayed lead gives writers another option for adding variety to a script, but, like some other leads mentioned earlier, it should not be overused.

Negative leads

Negative leads, which include the word not, should be avoided. A positive lead can easily achieve the same result. There is always the chance someone in the audience might miss the word not and reach the wrong conclusion about what is happening. Here are some examples:

Avoid: Striking newspaper workers say they will not return to work.

Use: Strikng newspaper workers say they will continue their walkout

Avoid:  The rnayor says he will not raise the city sales tax

Use:  The rnayor says he will keep the city sales tax at its present rate.

Constructing the rest of the story

Once you have the lead of a story, its foundation, you are ready to construct the rest of the story by building on the lead. The audience has been prepared for what is to come. Now you must provide the details in a clear and logical manner.

In broadcast news, you can use more than just words to accomplish your goal. You can employ sound on radio and use both sound and pictures to help tell the story on televi­sion. Those techniques are examined later. For now, let's just deal with words, starting with a hard lead:

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says U.S. troops will stay in Iraq for a number of months.

The viewers now know part of the story. A military leader is telling them something important: that their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and other relatives and friends-at least some of them-are not coming home right away. The audi­ence will want to hear the more of the explanation:

General Nelson Felts says American forces will stay in Iraq to enforce provisions of a pending U.N. cease-fire agreement. He says the troops would also prevent Iraq from developing chemical weapons in the future.

Now the audience knows why troops will remain in Iraq. What it does not know yet is how the troops are going to prevent Iraq from developing the chemical weapons. The next sentence addresses the question:

General Felts did not explain how the U.S. forces would prevent Iraq from developing the weapons.

Once the general made reference to the chemical weapons, the statement had to be explained to the audience even if the general did not elaborate. Other­wise, the audience might have been asking the question and accusing the newscaster of withholding the information. Once the main thrust of the story has been covered, the reporter can add more:

Felts also says he is surprised by the strength of the resistance against the U.S. forces. But the general says that the longer the fighting continues, the more likely it is that the U.N. sanctions will ultimately be felt by the Iraqis.

The general had much more to say to reporters, and newspapers carried the story in greater detail. But the broadcast newswriter, who had eight other stories to cover in a 3-minute newscast, told the Felts story in just 20 seconds. The essential detailswere given; nothing vital was left out. This is key to broadcast newswriting: condense the important material and eliminate the unimportant without distorting the story or the facts.

Writing good leads takes practice. Fortunately, this practice can be gained rather quickly as you write copy for ongoing newscasts. If you find yourself stuck on the first few words, try to rough out a question lead. No good? Maybe there's a quote in the story that can rise to the occasion or, if you look hard enough, there may be a bit of trivia to provide a starting point. Some leads may be more appropriate than others, depending on the nature of the story, but remember that there is always more than one way to lead your story.


BroadcastNewsCover©2010 Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved. "Broadcast News, Writing, Reporting, and Producing, Fifth Ed." by Ted White and Frank Barnas. For more information on this title and other similar books, please visit elsevierdirect.com.