Reporters must be skilled at collecting facts, presenting them accurately and balancing stories. They must endeavor to seek truth and report it. Errors should be minimized. So should opinions, unless a source is cited or quoted. Reporters should write in third person, keeping their personal opinions out of news stories.
Accuracy requires seeking answers to the five W’s – who, what, where, when, why – as well as how and so what. Reporters must tell readers why the story is important and why it should be read.
The basic summary news lead includes many of the five W’s because combining those elements tells the story in the most succinct manner. Chronological storytelling rarely works because in that approach the most important information – the information that should be the lead – often is “buried” several paragraphs into the story. For breaking news stories, place the most important information in the lead so that you sum up in one sentence of 25 words or less the point of the story.
Some stories, often feature stories, require leads that are creatively written, that entertain or astound readers. Such a lead does not sum up the story in the first sentence or paragraph, so the writer must include a “nut” graf – the story in a nutshell – which tells the reader the importance of the story and why it should be read. The nut graf usually is placed within the first six paragraphs of the story.
Leads that succeed include the summary, delayed identification, immediate identification, anecdotal/narrative, scene-setter, direct address, blind, roundup, startling statement (or “zinger”) and wordplay leads.
After writing a lead, the journalist must organize the story. The primary story structure for breaking news is the inverted pyramid, which begins with the most important details and tapers to the less important details in descending order. Its shape is that of an upside-down pyramid.
Other stories, such as feature pieces or trends, can be told best by using different structures. Crime stories, for example, are best told in the hourglass or martini glass structure. The Wall Street Journal or kabob structure works best with trend stories.
Information that is not common knowledge must be attributed to someone. Reporters must cite their sources.
Stories that are not breaking news often have an ending, called a “kicker.” A memorable quote might be a good kicker for a story. Or the last paragraph might include some important information about a person mentioned in the lead of the story. Reporters call that a circle kicker because it circles back from the end to the beginning of the story. To arrange a kicker, reporters must plan their stories. Stories should not end with summaries.
Reporters rewrite frequently to make their stories sound better. Key objectives in rewriting are to replace passive verbs with active verbs, omit redundancies and long, wordy sentences, and eliminate jargon and clichés. Reading the story aloud is a good way to find the errors.
Reporters should not be offended when their stories are edited. The editor’s goal is to improve the story, and the reporter should work with the editor to do so. All reporters should learn grammar and punctuation and refer often to the AP Stylebook or their newspaper’s style guide.
AP style, an industry standard, includes the rules that govern how most newspapers refer to numbers, titles, capitalization, abbreviations, addresses and other grammatical and word usage issues.
Deadlines are important. Missing them creates extra work for others trying to publish a newspaper, and that could get a reporter fired. Reporters should give themselves plenty of time to write and rewrite their stories, plan ahead, and write each story as soon as they have the information.
Anecdotal lead: A ministory, with a beginning, middle and ending, used to ease into a topic.
AP style: The style used by the Associated Press; the industry standard.
Attribution: Citing the source of information.
Blind lead: An extreme version of the delayed-identification lead; teases readers by withholding a key piece of information, and then springs it on them in a subsequent paragraph.
Bury the lead: To put the most important facts in a news story deep into the body of the story rather than at the beginning.
Circle kicker: A story ending that refers to a person or anecdote in the lead.
Clichés: Trite, worn-out phrases. Omit them.
Deadline: The set time by which a story must be turned in to an editor.
Delayed-identification lead: Withholds a significant piece of information – usually a person’s name – until the second paragraph.
Direct address lead: Uses the second-person voice to speak directly to the reader in feature stories.
Editors: People who read news stories and make changes in them to make them more readable.
Fair: Getting all sides of a story.
Five W’s: Who, what, when, where, why – the building blocks of every news story.
Immediate-identification lead: Names a public figure or a celebrity in the lead.
Inverted pyramid: The most basic story structure. The most important facts are placed at the top with less important details following in descending order. Story structure looks like an upside-down pyramid.
Jargon: Language spoken by bureaucrats or language that is recognizable to a certain profession but not the general public. Jargon excludes people from understanding. Avoid it.
Journalese: The type of jargon used by journalists. Omit it.
Kabob: A story structure that begins with an anecdote about a specific person, continues with a nut graf and general discussion, and ends with another anecdote – much like vegetables and meat on a skewer. Also called the Wall Street Journal formula because reporters from that newspaper use the structure often.
Kicker: The end of a story.
Lead (or lede): The beginning of a news story.
Martini glass: A story structure that begins as an inverted pyramid but shifts into a chronological narrative about halfway into the story. Also called the hourglass. It’s best used for stories in which chronology is important, such as crime and disaster stories.
Narrative lead: A beginning that drops the reader into the action immediately. The action often continues throughout the story.
Nut graf: Paragraph that contains the reason for writing the story, the reason why readers should care about the story.
Objective: Communicating by using facts, not opinions.
Quote lead: A beginning that is a direct quotation; fails to summarize what happened. The quote states an opinion, not a fact, and readers don’t know who is speaking.
Roundup lead: A beginning that presents a list of things or events that happened.
Scene-setter lead: A beginning that describes sights, sounds and smells to transport the reader to another place; usually reserved for long feature stories as it lacks the urgency of the hard-news lead.
Sidebar: A short story written to accompany a longer story.
Startling statement (or zinger): A sentence that grabs readers’ attention with an astonishing fact or piece of information, daring them to continue reading.
Style: (1) The way a person writes. (2) The rules that govern punctuation, capitalization and word usage.
Summary lead: A beginning that combines the most significant of the five W’s into one sentence; used in the majority of news stories.
SVO sentences: Sentences written in subject-verb-object order. Example: Jane (subject) threw (verb) the ball (object).
Topic lead: A beginning that states only that an event occurred, without including the outcome; fails to convey the news.
Wordplay lead: The use of puns, sound effects, typography or witticisms to begin a story.