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Guide to Writing a Lead to a News Story or News Release
The first words of the lead are the most important words in the entire story. Thus, start with a basic fact:
Your college or university will offer a class.
A researcher at your college or university has received a grant.
Add some detail or description.
Your college or university will offer a class in contemporary Chinese history.
A communication researcher at your college or university has received a $50,000 grant.
Provide additional information relevant to your readers.
Your college or university will offer a class in contemporary Chinese history to senior citizens next weekend.
A communication researcher at your college or university has received a $50,000 grant to study the effect of media violence.
Lead with what really is the news, not with titles or less essential background information.
Not so good: Melody ConBrio, music director of your town’s symphony orchestra, announced today that your school’s quarterback will be guest conductor to open the “Jeans & Beer” concert series.
Not any better: At a morning news conference, Melody ConBrio, music director of your town’s symphony orchestra, announced . . . Better: (Name) quarterback will be guest conductor to open the “Jeans and Beer” concert series of the (city) Symphony Orchestra, music director Melody ConBrio, announced today.
Delay specific information. Instead, provide general information in the first paragraph that gives the reader an idea of what is happening, then follow with specific details in subsequent paragraphs.
Avoid leads that report topics or events ( The disease affecting American bees was discussed at a meeting of biologists on campus today; A meeting was held by the college board of trustees this morning; Today is the first day of autumn). Instead, report ideas and actions; select a focus of information. Tell who (famous vs. unknown) what, when or why.
- The summary lead, one that succinctly summarizes newsworthy information, is the most commonly-used lead for news stories.
- Most leads are who or what leads.
- A lead should be a single sentence and typically comprises a single paragraph.
- Keep leads shorter than 35 words for readability and ease of comprehension.
- Write as you speak. Don’t be too informal or casual, but do be plainspoken and direct.
- Consider a writing feature lead that goes beyond the basic who, what, when and where format.
- Brevity is important because words are heard by the audience, not read. One thought, one sentence.
- In writing, think of how you would tell a friend about some thing that has happened. Compose your lead in the same way.
- The single act lead that tells who did what or what happened is the most common in broadcast news.
- Related events may be tied together with an umbrella or comprehensive lead.
- Chronological or narrative leads describe events over time.
- Warm-up or soft leads catch listeners’ attention by easing gradually into a story and preparing them for what comes next.
- Don’t lead with unfamiliar names, numbers or a question. Don’t sensationalize or write scare leads.
Public Relations Leads
- Follow the same guidelines for a print lead. If your lead reads like the lead for a newspaper story, it is more likely to appear in the next edition.
- Summarize the most important news elements in the first paragraph.
- Don’t put too much focus on the organization. Instead, tell the significant information of interest to a broad readership.
- Keep sentences and paragraphs short and brief.
- Avoid promotionalism, “puffery,” and superlatives.
Tips for Writing Broadcast Copy
- Remember, broadcast copy is written for the ear, not for the eye. Simple writing style increases understanding. (If people don’t understand what you’ve written, you’ve wasted your time and theirs.)
- Broadcast copy is conversational. Radio–TV scripts should “read” well. Write as you speak.
- Give your copy rhythm and cadence, an ordered flow of sounds that makes writing interesting to listen to. Vary sentence length.
- Avoid hard-to-pronounce words, and write copy that considers the ability of the announcer who will be reading.
- Don’t crowd broadcast leads with too much detail. Use enough information to attract listeners’ attention, but not so much that it confuses them.
- Remember that the soft or warm-up lead, which attracts the listener’s attention and prepares him or her for what comes next, is an effective writing device.
- Do not lead broadcast stories with unfamiliar numbers or names. Round off numbers to facilitate understanding. Simplify names and titles, and remember that in broadcasting, titles always come before names, and both always come before a quote.
- Simplify pronunciation of difficult or unknown names or places by using a pronouncer (a guide with an understandable phonetic spelling of hard-to-say names, places, and technical terms).
- Use strong declarative subject-verb-object sentences with action verbs. Write using the present tense and active, not passive, voice.
- Remember that broadcast copywriting is governed by the clock. Prepare tightly written copy that makes every word count.
- Keep abbreviations simple. Spell out words or names where the audience or announcer may be in doubt.
- Good writing involves rewriting. Polish, freshen, and update copy.
A Business Primer
It is inevitable in these lean economic times that news reporters will be reporting on the state of economy. Public relations practitioners, too, need to be aware of economic trends, especially as they pertain to their business or organization. As a prospective news reporter or public relations person, you need to begin reading the business and financial pages in order to understand our economic system and its health. Here are some indicators, organizations and terms with which you should become familiar.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA)
One of the major indicators of the nation’s economic health is the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the average value of 30 large industrial stocks. Big companies such as Wal-Mart, AT&T, IBM and Chevron are among those making up the index, which is periodically revised and updated to reflect the overall corporate health of those listed.
The Dow is a barometer of the general health of stock prices as a whole. If the economy is doing well and there are no international pressures influencing the stock market, then stocks, reflected by the Dow, generally tend to rise (called a bull market when the trend persists over months). Conversely, if the economy falters or there is some event that precipitates a bear market (the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the European financial crisis of 2011–12), stock prices decline in value.
If a specific stock goes down while the market as a whole is advancing, that says something about the company or related industry. Likewise, if the stock is rising faster than the market, or is advancing or declining slower that the market as a whole, that says something, too (which is how financial analysts make their living).
The Dow Jones Industrial Average is computed from the following 30 stocks: 3M Corporation; Alcoa; American Express; AT&T; Bank of America; Boeing; Caterpillar; Chevron; Cisco Systems; Coca Cola; Disney; E.I. DuPont de Nemours; Exxon Mobil; General Electric; Hewlett Packard; Home Depot; Intel; IBM; JP Morgan Chase; Johnson & Johnson; Kraft Foods; McDonald’s; Merck; Microsoft; Pfizer; Procter & Gamble; Travelers; United Technologies; Verizon; Wal-Mart.
Federal Reserve (“The Fed”)
The Federal Reserve, the Central Bank of the United States, was established in 1913 to provide the country with a safe, flexible and stable monetary and financial system. Its decisions often have an immediate impact on the stock market as reflected by the Dow.
The Federal Reservesystem consists of a seven member Board of Governors with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and twelve Reserve Banks located in major cities throughout the United States. The primary responsibility of the board members is the formulation of monetary policy. It sets bank reserve requirements and shares the responsibility with the Reserve Banks for discount rate policy (interest rates). The Federal Reserve Board not only has regulatory and supervisory responsibilities over system member banks, but bank holding companies, international banking facilities in the United States, and the U.S. activities of foreign–owned banks.
The Fed develops and administers regulations to implement federal laws governing consumer credit. The Federal Reserve does not operate in a vacuum, however. Board members routinely confer with other government agencies, representatives of banking industry groups, officials of the central banks of other countries, members of Congress and academicians. Governors meet frequently with Treasury officials and the Council of Economic Advisers to help evaluate the economic climate and to discuss objectives for the nation’s economy. Governors also discuss the international monetary system with central bankers of other countries and stay in close contact with the heads of the U.S. agencies that make foreign loans and conduct foreign financial transactions.
Consumer Price Indexes (CPI)
The Consumer Price Indexes (CPI) program produces monthly data on changes in the prices paid by urban consumers for a representative basket of goods and services. Indexes are available for major groupsof consumer expenditures, such as food and beverages, housing, apparel, transportation, medical care, recreation, education and communications, as well as other goods and services. Prices for goods and services used to calculate the CPI are collected in 87 urban areas throughout the country and from about 23,000 retail and service establishments. Data on rents are collected from about 50,000 landlords or tenants.
The most widely used measure of inflation, the CPI is an indicator of the effectiveness of government economic policy. Business executives, labor leaders and other private citizens use the index as a guide in making economic decisions.
More than two million workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements which tie wages to the CPI. The index also affects the income of almost 80 million people covered by of statutory regulation: 47.8 million Social Security beneficiaries; about 4.1 million military and Federal Civil Service retirees and survivors; and about 22.4 million food stamp recipients. Changes in the CPI also affect the cost of lunches for the 26.7 million children who eat lunch at school. Some private firms and individuals use the CPI to keep rents, royalties, alimony payments and child support payments in line with changing prices. Since 1985, the CPI has been used to adjust the Federal income tax structure to prevent inflation-induced increases in taxes.
The term inflation is used for the rate at which the general level of prices for goods and services is rising, with a subsequent decline in purchasing power. In simple terms, as inflation rises, every dollar will buy a smaller percentage of goods. In the U.S., the Federal Reserve central banks attempt to moderate inflation to keep the excessive growth of prices to a minimum.
Many economists argue that the opposite of inflation, deflation, a general decline in prices, often caused by a reduction in the supply of money or credit, is even worse than inflation. We have seen the impact of deflation in some sectors of the economy over the past few years—the drop in housing values being the prime example. Deflation can also be caused by a decrease in government, personal or investment spending. Deflation has the side effect of increased unemployment since there is a lower level of demand in the economy, which can lead to an economic recession or depression. The Federal Reserve also tries to stop severe deflation in an attempt to keep the excessive drop in prices to a minimum.
Disinflation is a term used by the Federal Reserve to describe a slowing in the rate of price inflation, when the inflation rate has reduced marginally over the short term. Disinflation is viewed as normal during healthy economic times because prices do not actually drop and disinflation does not usually signal the onset of a slowing economy.
The Gross National Product (GNP) is the value of all the goods and services produced in an economy, plus the value of the goods and services imported, less the goods and services exported.The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer, investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports.
Increasingly, America’s economic health is dependent upon what happens beyond our borders. Concerns about the euro and the economic woes of countries in southern and eastern Europe can cause jitters on Wall Street. Past crises in the Middle East have increased the price of oil, thus raising gas and fuel prices and making it more expensive to do business. Periodic trade skirmishes with Asian nations lead to trade wars centered on some products, affecting pricing in the U.S. and at times leading to a decline in purchasing by consumers that impacts the broader economy.
The balance of payments is a record of the payments and receipts of a country in transactions with other countries. Payments and receipts of each country should ideally be equal, although there always will be excesses of payments (deficits) or surpluses (receipts).
The difference between the value of goods and services exported out of a country and the value of goods and services imported into the country is referred to as the balance of trade, the official term for net exports that makes up the balance of payments. The balance of trade can be a “favorable” surplus, where exports exceed imports, or an “unfavorable” deficit where imports exceed exports.
A balance of trade surplus is most favorable to domestic producer-exporters but unfavorable to domestic consumers of the exports who pay higher prices. Likewise, a balance of trade deficit is unfavorable to domestic producers competing with the imports, but it can also be favorable to domestic consumers of the exports who pay lower prices.
Free Trade Agreements(FTAs) have proved to be one of the best ways to open up foreign markets to U.S. exporters, according to the International Trade Administration, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department. Trade Agreements reduce barriers to U.S. exports, and protect U.S. interests and enhance the rule of law in FTA partner countries. The reduction of trade barriers and the creation of a more stable and transparent trading and investment environment make it easier and cheaper for U.S. companies to export their products and services to trading partner markets.
World Trade Organization
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the key agency dealing with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible. The WTO, then, is an organization for trade opening, a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements, and a place to settle trade disputes. It operates a system of trade rules and is an entity where member governments attempt to resolve trade problems with one another.
WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. Negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations, these provide the legal ground rules for international commerce. Agreements are essentially contracts, binding governments to keep their trade policies within agreed limits and to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business under transparent and predictable policies that are not subject to sudden change.