Writing a News Story Learning Objectives Identify the types of news leads and their elements Write news leads Organize news stories Be accurate and objective Use third person point of view Use sentence length and structure that are appropriate for journalistic writing Use transitions Writing the Lead The lead is the beginning of a news story. It is the most important part of the story because it conveys the main idea. Readers scan leads to gather information quickly and to help them decide which stories to read. Readers decide in the first seven to 14 words whether or not to read a story. The lead must grab the readers’ attention and arouse their curiosity. Writing the Lead Direct news leads are used on hard news stories— stories about timely, breaking news. The first one or two paragraphs, the lead, give the most important facts about the story. Leads on soft news stories, the less timely feature stories about individuals or about lifestyle issues, are often several paragraphs long. Writing the Lead Soft news leads use anecdotes or set up scenarios that capture readers’ imaginations. These indirect leads may run as many as six to 10 paragraphs before the reader discovers the subject of the story. But whether a lead is one paragraph or half a dozen, it must be dynamic enough to make the reader want to know more. Direct News Leads Direct news leads are also called 5 Ws and an H leads, because they answer most or all of the main questions readers will ask: Who? What? Where? When? Why? And How? Example: Choir members mixed business and pleasure at a recent national contest in New Orleans April 14-18 where the choirs reached first place all around. (Rampage, John Marxhall High School, San Antonio, Texas) Direct News Leads cont. Try analyzing this direct news lead according to the 5 Ws and the H: Who: choir members What: mixed business and pleasure When: April 14 to 18 Where: News Orleans Why: a national contest How: by winning first place Prioritizing Information for the Direct News Lead The direct news lead puts the most important information at the top of the story. Deciding which facts to use to begin the lead is extremely important. Leads that tell who, what and why are popular because readers recognize prominent names, and they want to know what is happening and what it means to them. When something happened is seldom the most important or interesting part of a story. Prioritizing Information for the Direct News Lead A good strategy is to use the values that make a story news: timeliness, prominence, proximity, conflict, impact and human interest. If a reporter is not sure which of the 5 Ws and an H will interest readers most, assigning a number value to each word or phrase may help. Using a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest interest and one being the lowest, assign each key word or phrase a number value. Prioritizing Information for the Direct News Lead Creating the direct news lead helps writers organize their stories by forcing them to identify the basic elements before they begin to write. It’s a good idea for beginning reporters to write down six one-word questions—Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?—and the key words that answer each question before starting to write a lead. With the answers to these basic questions, the reporter will be able to organize and write a lead that includes all the most important info. Summary Leads Direct news leads sometimes begin with a paragraph that summarizes the story and then add specific details, such as names, ages, dates and locations, in the second paragraph. These direct news leads are called summary leads. Summary Leads cont. The opening statements of summary leads are similar to the previews of movies. Readers get an idea of what the story is about, but they can’t really tell how the story will evolve until they have more information. Or, like a synopsis of a short story, the summary lead outlines the plot but leaves out all the descriptive narrative. Summary leads help readers determine whether or not they want to read the story based on a brief preview of the content. Summary Leads cont. Either the first or the second paragraph or the following story about an accident could have been the lead. The first is a summary lead: “One teen dies and three other were injured in an accident in Adams County over the weekend.” Summary Leads cont. The second paragraph gives detailed information for readers who are interested in knowing more about the accident and those involved: “Travis J. Vapp, 17, died at 12:20 a.m. Sunday when the car he was driving went off a dead end at the T-intersection of Highway 14 and the KICS Road. Three passengers, Tom B. Hansen, 17, Amy M. Hayes, 17, and Ryan M. Conroy, 16, were injured in the crash.” Summary Leads cont. Leads that summarize the story before giving specific information are variations of direct news leads, because they give all the information necessary for the reader to know what the story is about in the first paragraph. The summary lead adds one or more sentences to the 5 Ws and an H lead. By the end of the second paragraph, the reader should know the basic facts. Summary Leads cont. School papers use summary leads for news stories because they work well for hard news stories that are not published immediately after the event. Summary Leads cont. Example: “Bodiless heads are not usually the mainstream definition of beautiful art, but for one TFHS class, they have become both a creative outlet and a teaching tool. Art teacher Shelly Christensen’s Studio Art class has recently been learning about sculpture and the human body through the molding of heads and torsos.” (Bruin News, Twin Falls High School, Twin Falls, Idaho) Indirect Leads Indirect leads are leads that set a scene or begin a story before revealing the topic of the article. Indirect leads entice readers to read the article by introducing a person or situation that arouses readers’ curiosity or invites them to feel some emotion or relationship to the person or subject of the story. Indirect Leads cont. They are also referred to as delayed leads, feature leads and storytelling leads because they are usually longer that direct leads and they most often introduce soft news stories. Indirect leads have been popular for use in lifestyle and feature stories for a long time. Today they are being used for hard news stories, too, as the trend in newswriting moves toward making news more reader friendly. Indirect Leads cont. Today’s reader is also today’s television viewer and computer user who is surrounded by visual images. Indirect leads tell stories and create images that help the reader visualize the story. Some indirect leads appear on news stories, and some lead into feature stories. They may be several paragraphs or just one sentence long. Indirect Leads cont. Example: WASHINGTON (AP)—There’s a way to tell people about your missing pet beyond tacking signs on telephone poles. The U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection service has made its new Animal Care site on the World Wide Web available to people who want to advertise missing or found cats and dogs. Indirect Leads cont. Example: Can it. The recycling program at Westside, headed by instructor Harley Hardison, has been successful this year. (Lance, Westside High School, Omaha, Nebr.) Most indirect leads are longer than the last example. Typically, they last from one to six or seven short paragraphs, but there is no rule. Indirect Leads cont. The nut graf, the paragraph that tells exactly what the story is about, concludes the indirect lead. In the “Can it” lead, the second paragraph is the nut graf, because it tells the reader that the story is going to be about the success of Westside’s recycling program. In a direct news lead, the first paragraph is the nut graf. Indirect Leads cont. In the following seven-paragraph lead, the reader sees the classroom and feels the lack of interest being displayed by the students. The reader become part of the scene and has empathy for the students, because the reader has experienced similar circumstances. Suddenly, both students and reader are jarred awake by the teacher’s words. Your eyes are drooping closed and your mind is far from the classroom, and you doodle drawings on your paper just trying to keep awake. “Today we’re going to learn about birth control, class.” Suddenly, your attention shifts to the teacher rather than to the squirrel prancing across the telephone wire in the distance. “Who can tell me what I mean by abstinence?” A few people giggle and others turn red. What you thought would be another boring day may turn out to be interesting after all. Abstinence, particularly in high school, is the most effective form of birth control. However, abstinence is only as effective as the percent of people who use it. The school, therefore, teaches contraceptives as part of the health curriculum to keep the students protected if they will not abstain, according to health teacher Christy Mata. (Shakerite, Shaker Heights High School, Shaker Heights, Ohio) Indirect Leads cont. This indirect lead works because it invites readers personally into a setting with which they have some familiarity. The interest level of this lead is also strengthened by the writer’s use of the pronoun you to include each reader individually in the scene. While the word you is not appropriate in a direct news lead, it is occasionally effective in an indirect lead that invites the reader to become part of the story. Types of Leads Types of Leads handout Organizing the News Story The organization of a news story is very important. It gives the reader information that explains the lead. It tells the story in a logical sequence. Inverted Pyramid The sequence in which information is presented in most news stories is called the inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid organizes information from most important to least important. The majority of news stories are written in inverted pyramid style. Looks like a pyramid turned upside down. Inverted Pyramid cont. The direct news lead is the first paragraph in a story. After the lead, the story is logically organized into blocks of detail that explain the lead. The reporter uses news judgment to decide which information is most important and which can be left for later in the story. Inverted Pyramid cont. News judgment is a “sixth sense,” or intuitive feeling, that journalists have about what stories and issues are newsworthy and what their readers will want to know first in a story about an event that is important to them. A journalist’s news judgment is developed and strengthened through practice, but even beginners have some sense about what their readers will want to know first. Testing the Inverted Pyramid Stories can be tested to see if they are organized in inverted pyramid style. Journalists call this a crop test. Crop means to cut or to shorten. To use the crop test, start at the end of the story. Read each paragraph and decide whether it contains information that is absolutely necessary to the understanding of the basic story. If several paragraphs can be cropped from the story without losing important information, it is written in inverted pyramid style. The Storytelling Pattern More and more news stories are being written in an organizational pattern called the storytelling pattern. The storytelling pattern invites the reader in with an indirect lead. The body of the article gives the facts and information necessary in any news story. The Storytelling Pattern cont. The ending is usually a clincher, a statement that returns the reader to the scene introduced in the opening paragraphs, or that reaches a conclusion necessary for complete understanding of the event or story. The end of the story ties back to the lead and is a necessary part of the story. It cannot be cropped without diminishing the meaning of the story. The Storytelling Pattern cont. Instead of giving facts in the inverted pyramid style, from most important to least important, the storytelling organization tells the story in a circular fashion. The end of the story refers back to the beginning, completing the circle of facts that make up the story. Choosing an Organizational Pattern All leads and stories can be organized in more than one way. No one organizational pattern is right for every story. Sometimes a blend—putting a storytelling lead on an inverted pyramid story—works better than either inverted pyramid or storytelling organization. Choosing an Organizational Pattern cont. The reporter determines the organization in the planning stages of the story. Hard news stories—such as those about accidents, fires and meetings—are most often written with direct leads and inverted pyramid organization. Features and timeless stories most often lend themselves to indirect leads and storytelling organization. Human interest news stories may fall into either category. Activity Find three examples of stories written in inverted pyramid form. Print out each story and write an explanation of why you think each story is in inverted pyramid form. Find three examples of stories written in storytelling form. Print out each story and write an explanation of why you think each story is in storytelling form. Writing the News Story Once you have decided what kind of lead your story calls for, what will go in your lead, and what organizational pattern you will use to write your story, the easy part is done. Now begins the challenging part of writing the story—the writing itself. Accuracy What a reporter writes must be accurate. The facts must be checked and doublechecked. The spelling of the names and the identification of the people must be checked and rechecked. Accuracy cont. Checking facts with more than one source is a good habit to develop. Verify information with at least three sources to be certain it is accurate. If three sources do not agree, the information needs to be checked until the reporter is certain that it is correct. Any information that cannot be verified should not be used. Objectivity Reporters report facts. They must be careful to maintain objectivity—that is, to report only facts, not their own opinions. The reporter’s job is to look at news from a distance and from all sides. In a news story, whether it is hard or soft news, the reporter must present only the facts about an issue or event and let readers draw their own conclusions. The reporter’s personal views and values should not be part of a story. Objectivity cont. Adjectives and adverbs describe things and events, but some of them imply opinion. Be careful of words such as definitely, largely, quickly, eagerly, unfortunately, especially, really, wonderful, just, tragic, greatly, finally and only. Words like these imply emotion or judgment that must be proven by the facts. The judgmental or vague word could be omitted without changing the meaning of the story. Stronger, more factual statements would result. Objectivity cont. Reporters who write news for publications that appear less often than daily write most of their news stories in news feature style. Descriptive words appear more often in features and in news stories with indirect leads than in timely news stories. Reporters can use descriptive words and still be objective if the descriptive words add detail rather than opinion to the picture being created for readers. Objectivity cont. To be more objective than they might be if they described a person or a scene themselves, reporters can quote someone describing the person or scene. Reporters sometimes feel so strongly about an issue that they are tempted to put their opinions into their stories. Reporters may quote sources who respond emotionally to facts in the story, but reporters must not reveal their personal feelings in writing news. Objectivity Avoid Reporter Opinion handout Fact vs. Opinion handout Remaining Objective handout Point of View Reporters also demonstrate objectivity through point of view. News should be written from a third person point of view with no first or second pronouns such as I, we or you. A story written with third person point of view is written as though the writer were standing back, watching people in action and writing a description of their activities. Point of View cont. The second person pronoun you can be a problem for news writers. You gives a command. It tells the reader how to think and what to do. Although it is implied in editorials and reviews, you should not be used in straight news stories. Even when giving information for individuals to use, such as phone numbers to call for information, a reporter should avoid the word you. Point of View cont. The word you is occasionally used in an indirect lead to entice the reader to become personally involved in the story, especially if it is a feature story. After the lead, the story should change to third person. “You” is also acceptable in a direct quotation in a story, because it is being said by someone other than the reporter. Quotations are used in news stories to give readers information from sources. Quotes are also used to interpret information introduced by the reporters in news stories. Readability Newspaper readers don’t want to work hard at reading and understanding when they read the paper. Reporters write in ways that make news easy to read. Short sentences and short paragraphs make news appear inviting and easy to read. Readability cont. Standard reading material appropriate for a newspaper audience averages 17 words per sentence. Some sentences will be longer; some will be shorter. Variety in sentence length makes reading interesting. Readability cont. Sentence structure also affects readability. The subject-verb-object order is preferred for quick, easy reading. Even a sentence in S-V-O order can be difficult to read and comprehend if too much information is included. When a sentence begins with a phrase or clause, it becomes more difficult to read. Not every sentence should be a simple S-V-O sentence. However, if the majority of sentences in a story follow this pattern the story will be easier to read. Transitions Transitions are the threads and glue that hold a story together. Transitions are key words, phrases and even entire paragraphs that link the sentences and paragraphs together while letting the reader know when a story moved from one idea, place or time to another. Transitions also may help the reader remember who is speaking. Sometimes they set up contrasts or comparisons. Transitions cont. Common types of transitions are key words, ideas, or themes; pronouns; transitional terms; paragraphs; and quotations. However, more than one type of transition is usually present in every story. Key words, ideas or themes Most stories have one or two key ideas, and they are identified in the lead. The same words, ideas or themes appear throughout the story to remind the reader that the story is still about the same subject. Pronouns Using a pronoun to refer to a person named in an earlier sentence or paragraph simplifies the writing. If a story has more than one subject or source, pronouns must have clear antecedents to avoid confusion. Transitional terms All kinds of words serve as connectors. To understand how transitional terms work, picture an outline: I. Transitions A. Glue that holds story together B. Help reader understand the story Types of transitions A. Key words 1. Definition 2. Example B. Pronouns C. Transitional terms D. Quotations and paragraphs II. Transitional terms cont. Each entry in the outline is preceded by a roman numeral, a letter or number. Each time a new topic is introduced or a fact that explains the topic is added, a new letter or number is added to the outline. The letter or number before the new information is a transition. It indicates that another thought is being added, a different topic is being introduced or a new time period is being entered. Transitional terms in news stories serve the same function. Common types of transitional terms: Conjunctions: and, but, or. Conjunctions usually connect ideas that go together, such as two halves of a compound sentence, or they set up contrasts that tell the reader that there is another side to the story. Additives: also, in addition, again, further, moreover, finally, in conclusion, next, so, thus. Additives help the writer move on to the next piece of information. Contrasts and comparisons: but, however, on the other hand, yet, instead, likewise, similarly. Words like these tell readers that there is another side to the story or issue and that now the reporter is going to tell them about that other side. Common types of transitional terms cont.: Place indicators: near, here, there, adjacent to, across, by, alongside, opposite. Any word that tells the reader that the scene is changing or adds information that enlarges or adds detail to the picture in the reader’s mind may be a transition. These words say, “We’ve been here; now we are moving over there.” Time indicators: later, that evening, after, meanwhile, soon, next, finally. A word or phrase that moves a story forward or backward in time helps the reader keep track of the sequence of events. Time indicator transitions help the reader organize the information chronologically. Paragraphs and quotations A paragraph or a quotation can be the transition that moves a story from one idea to another. Editing the News Story Every reporter is an editor. Writers and editors continuously check stories for accuracy, organization and writing style. This checking process is called editing. Editing is a continual process. It begins as soon as the reporter receives an assignment and ends when the story appears in print. Each decision the reporter makes about which sources to consult, which facts to include and which quotes to use is part of the editing process. Editing the News Story cont. Each time the reporter chooses one organizational pattern or lead instead of another for a story, that reporter is editing. Stories should also be carefully reread and edited for accuracy, objectivity and readability. After stories are placed on the page, they should be checked to be sure that vital information has not been deleted or errors introduced into the story during the placement process. Editing the News Story cont. Editing is a team effort. Everyone who writes, reads or places a story as it moves through the newsroom is responsible for editing it. The team’s goal is to make every story as accurate and well-written as possible. Each member of the team should check the facts in the story to make sure their accurate. Editing the News Story cont. Each person should question every fact or word that doesn’t seem right, every word or name that might be misspelled, and all the writing that may not conform to the publication’s style or to the standard rules of grammar. Getting this feedback from other helps the reporter identify and correct errors in the writing or gaps in information before the story goes out to the readers. Source Schaffer, James, Randall McCutcheon and Kathryn T. Stofer. Journalism Matters. Lincolnwood: Contemporary, 2001.