"Pay close attention to that man behind the curtain!"

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Newswriting 101

Even when I was a child, I knew that a well-written news story should tell you the basic things you need to know in its first paragraph. Over the past couple of decades, the kind of news writing which succeeds at doing so has become a rarity. Headlines state the complete opposite of what the articles tell you, and basic information is delayed until paragraph 13 -- or 23! As I see it, this is both a cause and a result of the dumbing down of society. The more it happens, the less we know, and vice-versa.

In my opinion, eliminating things like clichés and spelling errors is secondary to presenting the news clearly and accurately -- the main job of the newswriter. I'm sick of news which tries desperately to sound like a novel. It's no wonder I'm seeing increasingly frequent references to "heads exploding."

While doing some research on ledes last night (after reading a particular post on Atrios' blog), I came across this gem:
A Lede Should . . .

• Contain the essence of a story. What is this article about and why should we care? For instance, look at this lede from the National Post:
A Toronto police officer was shot in the face yesterday during a highway pursuit, following a break-and-enter call to a quiet residential neighbourhood.
This lede answers key questions: Who (a police officer); What (shot); Where (on a highway); When (yesterday); Why (a thief was trying to escape); How (with a gun). Always try to answer these five W's and one H questions in your lede.

• But be as concise as possible. Don't stall the reader with too many peripheral elements. Consider the following lede from the New York Times:
In a rare look at crime aboard the United States' growing cruise fleet, Carnival Cruise Lines reported in court papers filed Tuesday that its crew members were accused of sexually assaulting passengers and fellow workers on its ships 62 times in the five years ended last August, a rate of more than one a month.
What is this story about: the growing crime rate on cruise lines, or sexual harassment problems on Carnival Cruises? And while we're at it, is Carnival Cruises being sued, or are they testifying in a general court inquiry? At 55-words, this lede is confusing.

[Adjustments have been made to formatting]
Read the entire article on lede writing in HTML format here or as a PDF file here.

For an example of contradictory information, check out the headline and first paragraph of this recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Viral *Cure* for Diabetes *Discovered*

FRIDAY, Jan. 2 (HealthDayNews) -- Researchers in California have found a virus that could possibly provide an inoculation against type 1 diabetes. [Emphasis mine]
Can you spot the difference? In case you can't, a "cure" implies that someone who already has diabetes wouldn't have it anymore after being given this new treatment. An "inoculation" is something to prevent someone at risk from getting a disease. The word "discovered" is a verb used in the past tense, suggesting that this is something already available to the public. The words "could possibly" indicate that not only is it not available, but it might never be. I imagine that a few people might have paid for the print edition just to read that article. Fortunately, I read it online, but I wrote a letter to their editor anyway to complain about it.

Readers: demand better! No matter how small the mistakes you find may be, they will happen more and more unless you show the editors that you are paying attention.

So-called professionals: shape up or ship out! The bloggers may just replace you.
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