Soft News Leads
The lead, which is the opening sentence of a news story, is the most crucial element of any report.
In a matter of seconds, the viewer (or, in radio, the listener) makes a decision whether to listen to the story actively or to merely "tune out" until something more interesting comes along. Even worse, the audience may simply move to another station with a more compelling story.
However, this vital part of the story, which passes by in less than 5 or 6 seconds, is the most difficult to write. It must set the tone for what follows, provide enough information to intrigue the audience, and offer enough news so it simply doesn't burn away precious seconds.
"Your greatest competition is the remote control". . . . . Don Hewitt, 60 Minutes
While there are few "perfect" leads, some are better than most. As you pursue a career in journalism, you'll encounter those leads that are memorable, those leads that are acceptable, and those that are simply not very good. And because all news stories are different from one another, you'll also learn that different methods can solve the challenges in writing good leads.
THE FIVE Ws AND H RULE
Unless the story is a feature, the lead must include an element of news. It must begin to address the traditional journalistic concept of discovering information. To guarantee that all of the important news elements are reported in a story, journalists have devised a rule that requires newswriters to answer six basic questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how. This rule is referred to as the five Ws and H rule.
At one time, most newspaper editors expected every lead to answer all of these questions. But few newspaper editors still require this, and broadcasters never follow the rule. Still, at least one or more of the questions must be answered in the lead of the story for it to be news. By the end of the story, most-if not all-of the questions should be answered.
An opening sentence that contains no news is referred to as a nonnews lead, and such leads are unacceptable in a news story. Here's an example:
Mayor Paul Savoy has met with reporters.
This lead could become news by answering some of the journalistic questions. Why did the mayor meet with reporters? What did he tell them? For example,
Wheatland Mayor Paul Savoy says the city council has two budget choices this month-either raise property taxes or close two of the fire stations.
This revised lead does not deal with all five Ws and the H, but it's a start. The who is the mayor. The what is the issue of budget woes. The where is Wheatland. The when is this month. Still unanswered are the why and the how. These questions would be answered in the balance of the story-if the answers are available.
This revised lead is an example of a hard lead. Such leads address the most important aspect of a story immediately. There are a variety of ways to lead your story, and all of them are examined in the following sections. The decision about which kind of lead to use depends on a number of factors, but the most important is the nature of the story. Is it a feature or breaking news? Is the story sad or upbeat? Is it about people or an event? Is the story about politics, a war, a medical development, or the kidnapping of a child? Is the story brand new or a continuing one? The lead is like the foundation of a house. How the foundation is built determines how the rest of the house will look. In news, the lead sentence determines how the rest of the story should be constructed.
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