The Lead

February 12, 2012 | | 87 Comments

Journalists have the daunting task of capturing readers’ attention, while maintaining credibility. To effectively do this, journalists present the most interesting and newsworthy aspects of the story in the first paragraph or two, which is commonly referred to as “the lead” (Bender et al. 148). A well-written lead presents the central point of the article, but it does “not hide the subject with unnecessary or misleading words and phrases” (Bender et al. 148). There are multiple methods, however, for writing an effective lead. While every story must answer who, how, where, why, when and what in the regards to the story, “the lead should answer only the one or two questions that are most interesting, newsworthy, and unusual” (Bender et al. 148). The journalists, therefore, have the freedom to decide what belongs in the lead, making every lead a little different.

The New York Times staff is renowned for its ability to write an effective lead, as the staff can interest readers, while presenting the most central point of the news story. Three articles, written on Sunday, February 12, 2012, convey The New York Times’ ability to grasp readers and present information. The three articles also illustrate different styles for introducing news stories—as each writer utilizes a different type of lead.

Katharine Q. Seelye utilizes the immediate identification lead in her article, “After Three Losses, Romney Edges Past Paul in Maine.” The immediate-identification lead immediately answers who partook in the story (Bender et al. 149). Seelye employs the immediate-identification lead not only because the subject of her story, Mitt Romney, is important and well known, but also because knowing the name of the main subject is vital in understanding the significance of the story.

Seelye’s lead says, “Mitt Romney averted embarrassment on Saturday when he was declared the winner of a presidential straw poll in Maine’s nonbinding caucuses.” If Seelye had utilized the delayed-identification lead, her introduction would have read something like “A republican frontrunner averted embarrassment.” Journalists use the delayed-identification lead when “the main subjects are not as important as what those people did or what happened to them” (Bender et al. 149). However, in this case, the main subject is a vital aspect of the story, making the immediate-identification lead appropriate.

It is interesting to note, however, that Seelye does not use active voice in her lead when she says, “he was declared the winner.” While Reporting for the Media says journalists should use “strong, active and descriptive verbs rather than passive ones,” Seelye seems to believe passive voice is useful in her lead. Seelye does, however, keep her lead concise. Seelye’s lead is 20 words, while the book suggests that an average lead should be 18 to 20 words (Bender et al. 152).

Liam Stick and Neil MacFarquhar, however, lead their article, “Arab League Requests U.N. Peacekeepers for Syria,” with what is called a “blind lead.” Blind leads “hold back details so that the reporter can get to the central point of the article more quickly” (Bender et al. 150). While Stick and MacFarquhar’s article quickly states that members of the Arab League wanted the United Nations to “send a peacekeeping mission to Syria,” and members of the Arab League want “Arab nations to sever diplomatic relations with the country in an effort to pressure it to end violence there,” the article avoids mentioning who said what. Rather, the Stick and MacFarquhar address that later in the article in the “catchall graf.” A catchall graf “usually follows the blind lead to identify sources and answers questions created by the lead” (Bender et al. 150). The reason Stick and MacFarquhar utilize the blind lead is because the “who” is not as important as the “what” and “where.”

Similarly, utilizing the blind lead in Stick and MacFarquhar’s article helps the writers stay fairly concise, as they can avoid long introductory clauses. This is important because long introductory clauses “clutter leads, burying the news amid a jumble of less significant details” (Bender et al. 151).

Rod Nordland, however, utilizes a completely different lead in his article “Risks of Afghan War Shift From Soldiers to Contractors.” While the previous two articles utilized some variation of a basic or “hard lead,” Nordland utilizes an alternative lead, also referred to as a “soft lead.” His article begins with an anecdote: “Even dying is being outsourced here. This is a war where traditional military jobs, from mess hall cooks to base guards and convoy drivers, have increasingly been shifted to the private sector.” Later in his article, he goes on to discuss his central point—the deaths of contractors who work as diplomats body guards. This type of introduction, commonly referred to as a “buried” or “delayed” lead, allows Nordland to “surprise [his] readers with an unusual twist” (Bender et al. 186).

While alternative leads, like the one Nordland uses, are very interesting, they are also very controversial. Proponents believe “whether the lead works is what matters, not whether it is hard or soft” (Bender et al. 185). Critics, on the other hand, believe that “soft leads are too long and fail to emphasize the news” (185).


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