May 2011

Thoughts on writing the lede

Thousands, no, tens of thousands of words have been written about how to write a news lede (or lead, or leed). Whole forests have been felled. So rather than recap a lot of that same information, let me suggest you get the basics by visiting some of the sites linked to in the lede sentence of this post, and instead I will just offer a few supplemental thoughts of my own.

  • If you haven’t already, go read my previous post on the use of tense in ledes.
  • Likewise, my post on names in ledes.
  • Now, in addition: A lede should always feature the ‘grabbiest’ element of the story. Usually, that means featuring the conflict (if any) expressed or implied in the narrative. Other times, it means featuring the ‘twist’ element, or the celebrity name, or some other ‘sexy’ aspect.
  • Ledes, more so than any other part of a broadcast news script, must be in the active voice, if at all possible. (This differs a bit from print, where the important thing is to have the newsmaker as the subject of the sentence, which sometimes forces you into the passive voice.)
  • Ledes should orient the audience, not disorient it. This means different things depending on the audience. In the case of OutQ News, we run a service heard nationwide, so every lede must locate the story in a state or major city. For a local broadcast news operation that does breaking news around the clock, it might instead mean always including a reference to the time the news event occurred.
  • For spot news, such as we do here, only a straight lede is suitable. Creative-type ledes, such as the delayed lede which pushes the ‘nut’ (i.e. point) of the story down several paragraphs, are a no-go.

I’ll include more thoughts on ledes in future entries on related topics–or just as ideas come to me. That’s the great thing about a blog.

Questions? Feel free to add a comment below or [encode_email email=”” display=”email me”].

Link of the Week: FOIA requests as easy as Pop-Tarts™

I’ve never had to actually file a Freedom of Information request. But I’ve come close enough in the past that I had to research how to do it. Behold, the Federal Open Government Guide, published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It includes a very detailed but easy-to-read guide on what FOIA is, how it works, and how to formulate and file a request. To make it truly easy as pie (or PopTarts™), you’ll find on this page a link to a tick-the-boxes automated request letter generator for federal and state FOIA requests.

If I ever do need to file a FOIA request, this is where I’m starting.

Says versus said

We’ve already taken some time to talk about tense (especially as it relates to the lede), but I wanted to spend an additional minute on the special case of the verb “to say.”

In general, the preferred tense for verbs of expression (say, claim, note, etc.) in broadcast newswriting is the straight present.

20-year-old Tim Spriggs says, “We need a gay-straight alliance at St. John’s for the same reason that there are organizations for other minorities.”

This works most of the time, because most often we’re describing a recent statement that reflects the speaker’s current views (as above), or the current state of affairs.

But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes a quote or paraphrase is part of a narrative that you’ve already explicitly set in the past, using the past tense. In that case, it breaks the narrative thread for you to suddenly switch into the present tense for a quote or paraphrase.

In the actual OutQ News story from which the quote above was drawn, the two preceding sentences were this:

Some twenty students sat on the St. John’s University Great Lawn making rainbow gay rights posters. They told the New York Daily News they’ve been pushing for a campus GSA for years.

We’ve already set up an event from the preceding Friday, and any quotes or paraphrases emerge from within that narrative. Thus, we’re sort of stuck with putting everything (everything within the narrative, that is) in the past tense.

But further down in the same story, we escape the little narrative about the protest on the lawn to get a quote from a university spokesman. He spoke recently, and what he said reflects the school’s current view.

But a university spokesman says St. John’s has gone as far as it can to support gay students, considering its Catholic mission and values.

So in a nutshell: Use the present (says, notes, claims) unless they’re part of a story you’ve set in the past. In that case, stick with the tense of that story.

So-called ‘writers’ misuse ‘so-called’

Because it actually has two quite different meanings, one of them loaded, the phrase ‘so-called’ is particularly tricky to use in news copy, where we’re supposed to be neutral.

Most people know without thinking about it that ‘so-called’ has two meanings. Both are a spoken way to signal quotation marks. But the first signals jargon the listener may not be familiar with, or sometimes an imposed nickname, as in this example.

Republican Stacey Campfield is the sponsor of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill–it’s the same measure he unsuccessfully pushed for six years as a member of the state House.

The second meaning is the one that jumps to mind whenever the phrase is used without context.

The so-called ‘healing centers’ are really nothing more than a con game, preying on the desperate.

Of course, it’s this usage–loaded with sarcasm–that should be avoided in straight news copy.

But because it’s the same phrase, and the context doesn’t always make it crystal clear which meaning is intended (see my first example), it’s generally better to avoid its use altogether. Luckily, there are a few good alternatives for the neutral, jargon-introducing version.

Republican Stacey Campfield is the sponsor of what some are calling the “Don’t Say Gay” bill–it’s the same measure he unsuccessfully pushed for six years as a member of the state House.

Other alternatives that can be used (depending on the context) include “…what’s known as…” and “self-described.”

Add a comment if you think of any others.

what some are calling

Link of the Week: U.S. House Floor Proceedings

One thing we do fairly often at Sirius XM OutQ News is watch (and record) floor video from the U.S. House of Representatives. Because that’s being done while we write, edit, take bathroom breaks, etc., it often happens that we’ll miss some detail. Even if you’re watching closely, action moves so quickly in the House that it’s common for something to fly by too fast to note.

This page on the U.S. House website is the handy fix for that. It includes one week’s worth of every single official action of the House (votes, introductions of bills and amendments, referrals to committee, and so on), logged in near-real time. It can be a real life-saver if you need to know the yeas and nays on some bill or amendment, including the roll call.

There’s no contest between nolo contendere and an Alford Plea

If you write enough crime stories, you’ll eventually encounter a variety of different references to a kind of plea that stands in the no-man’s-land between guilty and not guilty (note: there is no such thing as a plea of “innocent”).

They go by various names: “no contest,” “nolo contendere,” and the “Alford Plea.” The first and second in this list mean exactly the same thing (nolo contendere is legal Latin). There are some minor technical differences between the first and last, but they are basically the same thing.

In a nutshell, these pleas do not admit guilt, but do admit that the state has enough evidence to convict. Defendants generally accept such a plea as part of a plea bargain, admitting to a lesser charge that will let them avoid the harsher punishment of the original charge.

No contest and Alford pleas differ from ordinary guilty pleas in that they are thought to offer some protection from a civil suit arising out of the crime.

In newswriting, I almost always go with “no contest,” which doesn’t involve Latin or the name of some guy nobody’s ever heard of. However, there are plenty of newsrooms where “Alford plea” is the preferred usage, so it may just be a regional thing.