Lead Writing For Broadcast News

Don’t feel like reading this lecture? Click here for a video of me explaining lead writing. 

What is a lead?

  • The first sentence of your story
  • The best opportunity to grab a viewer’s attention
  • Similar to a headline
The most important thing to keep in mind when writing your lead is that it must be clear and easy to understand.

3 ingredients of a well-written lead

  1. Capture the essence of the story. What’s the point?
  2. Conversational writing. The anchor sounds like they’re speaking with someone, rather than reading a script at them.
  3. Most important facts of the story presented in a narrative. Remember how impact and emotion drive good storytelling.

The art of the lead

  • Use clear and powerful statements so viewers know why they should care.
  • Always understand how your story affects viewers before writing your lead.
  • Active writing.
  • New, Now, Next.
  • Mom rule: write the way you’d talk to your mom.

What makes something newsworthy?

Ask yourself:
  • Does this story affect people?
  • How many people does it affect?
  • How long will the story affect people?
  • Does it have legs?

Determining what’s new, now, next:

  • Who are the participants in the story?
  • What are they doing right now? (or at the time that the newscast airs)
  • What will they be doing next?
Avoid:
  • Using a person’s name in the lead line, unless that person is known to every viewer.
  • Using too many facts or numbers in your lead line.
  • Assuming the viewers know what you’re talking about.
  • Passive writing.
  • Past tense.
  • Long sentences.
Example of a poorly written lead:
Twenty- nine- year- old Matt Thomas was arrested for the shooting death of eighty- nine- year- old Mary Smith near the Chase Bank on 4505 East Fletcher Avenue at eleven A-M.
Example of a better lead:
A FAMILY IS DEVASTATED THIS EVENING AFTER AN ELDERLY WOMAN WAS SHOT TO DEATH IN BROAD DAYLIGHT.
THE MAN ACCUSED OF KILLING EIGHTY- NINE- YEAR- OLD MARY SMITH IS NOW UNDER ARREST.
Note: it’s difficult to follow every “rule.” By trying to use “new, now, next,” parts of this is passive. I also felt her age was more important than writing in active voice in the second sentence. If I want to make the second sentence active I could write it like this, but then it would be past tense:
POLICE ARRESTED THE MAN ACCUSED OF KILLING EIGHTY- NINE- YEAR- OLD MARY SMITH.

See more examples in chapter 3 of the “Broadcast News Handbook.”

Connecting with your viewer in your lead

By understanding how a viewer is affected by your story, you can re-word your lead like these examples:

  • YOU MAY WANT TO INVEST IN SOME RAIN BOOTS BECAUSE IT’S EXPECTED TO FLOOD THIS WEEKEND.
  • IF YOU HAVEN’T BOUGHT ALL OF YOUR CHRISTMAS PRESENTS YET, TIME IS RUNNING OUT.
  • HAVE PLANS THIS WEEKEND? YOU MAY WANT TO CHANGE THEM ONCE YOU HEAR HOW MUCH RAIN IS HEADED YOUR WAY.

Rule of Thirds

We write for the ear. That means viewers don’t get a chance to go back and read what your script says. That’s why you should limit the number of items in a script to three.

Example script:
APPLE ADDICTS ARE GONG TO NEED SIRI’S HELP FILLING THEIR TIME UNTIL NEW GADGETS ARE RELEASED.
{TAKE VO}
A NEW I-PHONE IS JUST ONE OF THE INNOVATIONS EXPECTED AT TOMORROW’S BIG ANNOUNCEMENT.
RUMORS ARE SWIRLING ONLINE ABOUT A HUGE I-PAD.
PLUS, APPLE’S C-E-O PROMISES THAT VOICE ACTIVATED APPLE T-V WILL CHANGE THE FUTURE OF TELEVISION.

Even though there were dozens of features I could have chosen to inform viewers about, I chose the three most important ones:

  1. iPhone
  2. iPad
  3. Apple TV

RTDNA posted a great list of examples to keep your writing tight and accurate:  http://rtdna.org/article/writing_tip_avoid_unneeded_modifiers

Lead writing example

Write a good lead for the following story

The Miami Dolphins lost in a 41-14 blowout against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, but that was the least of cornerback Brent Grimes‘ worries.

According to Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald, Grimes’ wife, Miko, was “arrested on charges of battery on a police officer” and“resisting arrest with violence.” She “also faces a charge of disorderly conduct, per Miami-Dade PD, the arresting agency,” Beasley reported.

“Police say Miko Grimes broke through a police barricade and entered [a] restricted area, head-butted an officer & shouted obscenities,”reported WPLG Local 10 News.

CNN provided video of the incident, which appears to show Miko Grimes being held down by police officers in the parking lot of Sun Life Stadium.

This is not the first time Miko Grimes has made headlines. Per Jason Lisk of the Big Lead, Grimes went on a Twitter rant aimed at the NFL in January. After she had emergency oral surgery, her husband asked head coach Jason Garrett for permission to leave the Pro Bowl. However, according to Lisk, someone else in the NFL apparently “pulled his paid appearances when he missed practice.”

This apparently sparked Miko Grimes’ commentary on a variety of topics regarding the NFL, including the league’s issues with domestic violence, Thursday night games, concussion concerns and franchise tags. Lisk pointed out the Twitter rant was “at 40 tweets and counting.”

The arrest comes as Brent Grimes and his team begin to prepare for a Week 4 showdown with the New York Jets.

COMMON ANSWER:

Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes’ wife head-butts a police officer and yells obscenities. Miko Grimes is facing charges of both resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

PROBLEMS:
  • This is written like a headline, instead of a broadcast lead.
  • It should be in capital letters.
  • Including the name “Brent Grimes” in the 1st sentence because it makes it wordy.
  • If the person’s name isn’t known be the average viewer, you should use their title in the first sentence, then their name in the second.
  • When a person’s name ends in “s” it sounds weird to read it out loud with an apostrophe after the name. Try reading “Grimes’ wife” out loud.
I suggest something like this:

THE WIFE OF A MIAMI DOLPHINS PLAYER IS UNDER ARREST FOR HEAD- BUTTING A POLICE OFFICER DURING A GAME.
MIKO GRIMES IS ACCUSED OF BREAKING THROUGH A POLICE BARRICADE BEFORE OFFICERS PINNED HER DOWN IN THE SUN LIFE STADIUM PARKING LOT.

(Note: also remember to put each sentence on its own line.)

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HEADLINE AND A LEAD?

Example:

Headline: Wife of Miami Dolphins player breaks through police barricade to headbutt an officer and is arrested on multiple charges.

Lead: THE WIFE OF A MIAMI DOLPHINS PLAYER IS UNDER ARREST AFTER BREAKING THROUGH A POLICE BARRICADE AND HEAD-BUTTING AN OFFICER.

Note: If you make it new, now, next, you can turn a headline, into a conversational broadcast news lead.
Example:

Headline: Football player’s wife arrested for headbutting officer.

Lead: A FOOTBALL PLAYER’S WIFE IS UNDER ARREST FOR HEAD-BUTTING AN OFFICER.

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