March 2008

I’m a little tense about that lede

Because the lede to a broadcast story (or any news story, for that matter) must hook the audience immediately, it needs immediacy.

In print and sometimes in broadcast feature stories, it’s possible to, as we say, ‘delay the lede,’ putting a grabby bit of character or narrative right up front. In that case, the what’s-new, who-what-when-where-why-how part of the story (called the ‘nut graf’ — really!) comes later in the prose.

But on my side of the street, where we do only spot news, the ‘nut’ must always come first. That is, spot news always ledes with the most interesting, compelling way of expressing what’s new-new-new about this story.

One tool for conveying immediacy that says to the audience, “This is new! Pay attention!” is the choice of verb tense. In general, you want to lede with the tense that gives the strongest feeling of immediacy consistent with what makes logical sense given the facts.

So here is my rough-and-ready guide to lede tenses, in descending order of preference. As previously noted, these are rules of thumb; your mileage may vary.

  1. Present progressive tense: “Police are rounding up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
    This tense says the news event is happening right now; that’s as current as it gets. Notice that we rarely use the simple present tense (“Police round up twenty-five members…”); that would sound too much like a newspaper headline — telegraphic and just plain weird. Note also that the future tense is rarely used in a news lede (“Police will round up twenty-five members…”), because spot news is not much in the prognostication business. We leave that to tarot card readers and psychics.
  2. Present perfect tense: “Police have rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
    This is appropriate for something that happened in the recent past, and whose momentum, if you will, extends into the present. In the example, police just ’rounded up’ these alleged (always ‘alleged’) criminals, and still have them in custody.
  3. Simple past tense: “Police rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang last week.”
    Use this tense when the event you’re describing happened at some point in the somewhat more distant past, and is over and done with. This is not the tense you really want to use, as it conveys a feeling of stale, old news. If a week has gone by and most of those gang members have already bailed out of jail, it’s probably the safe choice. But in many cases, so long as the event is in the recent-ish past and the situation thereafter has been more-or-less static, you can use the present perfect tense in your lede, then specifically name the day the event happened (using the simple past tense) further down in your script.

I’ve seen newswriters use all kind of other weird tenses in their ledes (e.g. the past perfect: “Police had rounded up twenty five members…”; or past progressive: “Police were rounding up…”), but as a rule, you want to stick to these three unless you have a good reason and understand what you’re doing.

One final note: I called this specifically a guide to lede tenses for a reason. Tense choice within the main body of the story is likely to differ depending on the narrative needs of the story. Do not feel that because your lede is in a particular tense, the rest of the story must follow.

Link of the Week: Journalists’ Ethics AdviceLine

Normally in this space, I share a research link that I know, love, and use a lot. But this week, I’m offering a link I’ve never had to use, so far. Someday, I expect I will… but not too soon, I hope.

It’s the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice.

Here’s how they describe the service on the website:

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists is a free service limited to professional journalists in need of guidance on reaching ethical decisions while covering the news.

The service puts users directly in touch with other journalists trained to help work through ethical dilemmas. Contact is made through the website only initially. Thereafter, it’s person to person. If you actually use or have used the service, let me know. I’m interested in how it works–and how well it works.

To coin a paraphrase

I’ve laid out some kinda complicated rules about how to handle quotes in broadcast copy, but really, it can be simplified to this:

  1. In general, you should use exact quotes sparingly (don’t be promiscuous about them; limit yourself only to the best and pithiest quotes)
  2. When you do use exact quotes, treat them as if they were paraphrases.

For example:

Governor Fletcher said, “Kentucky has not discriminated against the gay community.”

This follows the rules I’ve laid out for quote handling. But read aloud it seems stilted and awkward. The following much smoother and more natural:

Governor Fletcher said that Kentucky has “not discriminated against the gay community.”

The difference between these two is very subtle (really, just a “that” versus a comma). But syntactically it’s all the difference in the world.

Note that in the second case, it would not necessarily be clear to the audience that they’re hearing an exact quote, which makes this approach unsuitable for cases where the audience really needs to know that.

In such instances, you’ll need to signal an exact quote, as discussed previously:

Over the weekend, in the words of a Beshear campaign spokeswoman, the “Fletcher camp hit the panic button.”

Cody Castgna’s lawyer said, “Unfortunately, I mean I hate to admit this on behalf of my client, but it’s a prostitution case. And frankly my client didn’t offer it or solicit it.”

In the second example, we didn’t use a ‘flag phrase’ like “in his words.” But it’s immediately clear it’s an exact quote because the speaker uses the first person right at the beginning of the sentence.

Link of the Week: Box Office Mojo

When writing a story about a movie, it’s often useful to know box office figures. There are several websites that provide this information. My favorite is Box Office Mojo. The site includes not only the daily, weekend and weekly domestic grosses and theater counts for movies currently in theaters, but also historical box office data (including all-time rankings) for thousands of films going back decades.

World Time on your desktop

In an earlier entry, I mentioned that I also keep track of time around the world using a desktop application. Before I forget to name it, here it is.

It’s called, cleverly, World Time 6, and it’s full-featured freeware from Pawprint.net. In addition to letting you set up a floating bar with the correct time for as many time zones as screen real estate will allow, World Time also includes repeating alarms, countdown clocks, a stopwatch, and a time calculator.

It works very well for me, but a few cautions are in order. PawPrint.net is just a hardworking guy in British Columbia. While he has not completely abandoned World Time, he has not updated it in four years. The time zone database it comes with is somewhat out of date, but PawPrint provides all the software tools you need to update time zone offsets and daylight time dates as they change… that is, if you can figure out how to use those tools (I was able to).

Also, the built-in program that synchronizes your computer clock to any one of dozens of ‘atomic clock’ time servers does not play well with Windows XP. I advise you to disable it, especially since Windows XP and Vista provide this synchronization built-in. There are also complaints on World Time’s forums that the program has other compatibility problems with Windows Vista.

Having said all that, if you’re even a little bit handy with computers and you want a desktop World Time program, this full-featured item is certainly worth a try, especially at the price of $0.

‘Peer’ = Member of House of Lords

In British journalistic usage, ‘peer’ usually means a member of the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament.

Technically, of course, ‘peer’ means any one of several ranks of titled nobility, which may or may not include membership in the House of Lords. But for the most part, the UK press uses the term as shorthand for the political office.

Searching online for an original source

While we’re on the subject of web searches

Sometimes I need to find the original source of a quote or news story (for example, that has been used without attribution or simply plagiarized by a blog). I’ve found that the easiest way is to use a randomly selected phrase from the source in hand that is long enough to be unique.

So for example, if I found this quote somewhere online without attribution (or if the attribution was a blog that referenced another blog and so on):

Lt. Brett Parson, who heads the D.C. police special liaison unit, said “Just like in heterosexual domestic cases, most of the abuse that occurs (in the case of gay couples) is punching, kicks, slaps, pushing or even threats. And people don’t think that is abuse, but it is.”

…then the following Google search (including the quotation marks)…

“punching, kicks, slaps, pushing or even threats”

… would reveal the original source was the Washington Post (though note that I’d have to click Google’s ‘repeat the search with omitted results included’ in order to see the original WashPost link).

Note also that I did not include parts of more than one sentence, or the parenthetical phrase “(in the case of gay couples)” in my search, because editing by the downstream source might have made changes that would foul up such a search.

So to recap: search, using quotation marks, for a phrase within a single sentence that is just long enough to be unique.

Links of the Week: Which county is that in?

Once in a while, you need to know which county a city is in (for example, because you need to call the county sheriff on a crime story), or conversely, which cities are in a particular county. One sometimes-handy tool for this is a Google maps mashup at maps.huge.info/county.htm. (Maps.huge.info also has a host of other useful data mapping tools: telephone area code boundaries, zip code boundaries, city boundaries, geocoders and reverse-geocoders) The only shortcoming to maps.huge.info’s county boundaries is that you must either already know the zip code of the county you’re looking for, or click in precisely the right location on a map of the U.S.

Another, often easier way to find your county is to use the somewhat under-loved map site MapQuest. Google Maps may have eaten a large portion of MapQuest’s lunch (along with breakfast and most of dinner), but MapQuest is still the only web map service I know of that shows county boundaries on all their maps at certain levels of magnification. If you don’t see the county lines, try zooming in one level at a time until they appear.

More on using proper nouns for searching

Reviewing my last entry, I see that literal-minded readers may think that I’m saying that using a city name and last name are usually the best query terms. Not at all.

Sometimes, if a last name is very unusual, that’s all you need. Often a first and last name together in quotes (or with a dash between them) is enough. (Although watch out for criminals, who for legal reasons are often identified with their middle name or initial.) If the first and last name are common (as in the case of ‘Larry King’), then throwing in a city name will help narrow it down. Other times a corporation name or a song title or a sports team name will work as well. What do all these have in common? They’re names — aka, proper nouns.

Use what you’ve got — but just enough to create a unique query. Adding proper nouns beyond that may exclude useful results.

Searching online to supplement what you know

One task I often need to accomplish is supplementing a little bit of information I have in hand (a news tip, a blog entry, an offhand reference, a quote, a news brief) with much more detailed information (a full newspaper write-up, an earlier news clipping, a script from our own archives). This can be hard to do if you don’t know how to formulate the right query for an online search… or it can take mere seconds if you do.

If you’re looking for a recent news story, then Google News is the right place to start. If you’re looking for general information or an older news clipping, start with a regular Google search. (Google News includes archival items, but in many cases, you have to pay.)

The quickest way to find exactly what you’re looking for is to use a query containing proper nouns — the capitalized names of persons, places or things. So, for example, if I’m looking for items on the Southern California gay teen recently shot to death at school…

gay teen shot

will get me there, but also miss some stories where he was not described as ‘gay’ and produce a lot of false leads, because, unfortunately, a lot of other gay teens have been shot in the last few years. But if I use the name of the city and the boy’s last name…

Oxnard King

I will almost eliminate false leads and produce a plethora of useful links. Note that I didn’t use the victim’s first name, because I happen to know that he was called both “Larry” and “Lawrence.” If I really wanted to nail it, of course, I could search on both:

Oxnard (Larry-King OR Lawrence-King)

Obviously, searching on just “Larry King” would be a bust, because of the similarly named talk show host.

Link of the Week: WorldTimeServer.com

Because Sirius OutQ News covers a lot of international LGBT news, we have stringers all over the world, and I constantly need to know what time it is where my correspondents are (don’t want to be ringing the phone in Melbourne at 3 a.m!). One of the tools I use to figure out the complications of calculating the time elsewhere (time zones, the international date line, daylight savings time) is WorldTimeServer.com. (I also use a piece of desktop software for my most commonly used time zones. More on that in a later entry.)

WorldTimeServer provides the correct time anywhere in the world, taking daylight time, half-hour offsets, and the date line accurately into account. The site also offers time zone calculators to help you set up meetings at a future date and time, embeddable clocks for your website, and other handy tools. They make their money through advertising, and by selling subscriptions to their database to companies that need up-to-date information on ever-changing local time zones around the world (think travel agencies, airlines, etc.).