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The Lead. Reporting and Writing Journalism and Media Studies Centre The University of Hong Kong Alex Lo. What is a lead?. Brits call it the intro , Americans & Aussies call it the lead . It gives the most important point of a story.

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The lead

The Lead

Reporting and Writing

Journalism and Media Studies Centre

The University of Hong Kong

Alex Lo


What is a lead
What is a lead?

  • Brits call it the intro, Americans & Aussies call it the lead.

  • It gives the most important point of a story.

  • It captures the essence of a news-worthy event and takes the reader right into the heart of it.

  • The direct lead is the workhorse of journalism.


What is a lead1
What is a lead?

  • Think of it as a speed date with your readers;

  • Or the quickest way to attract the attention of an impatient, cranky editor.

  • You have less than 20-30 words to attract their interest.

  • Most readers never get past the headline and the lead. That means all your efforts – reporting, writing, interviewing, briefing your editors - are wasted if your lead fails.


What s so important about the lead
What’s so important about the lead?

  • The principles for writing good news leads and news stories are the same as those for good writing in general.

  • English is your second language.

  • So take it easy on yourself: use simple words and write in short sentences.

  • But that’s not just making a virtue out of necessity.

  • Good English can be simple, clear, concise and direct.


What s so important about the lead1
What’s so important about the lead?

  • A news story should almost always be simple and direct. It’s the same as when you are writing to your boss, a client, the taxman or a university admissions officer.

  • Thinking clearly & writing concisely will serve you well in life – unless you plan on becoming a government bureaucrat, spin doctor or lawyer.


What s a lead
What’s a lead?

  • “Even cops call 911”

  • 911 in North America = 999 in HK

  • Terrible movie, but great tagline

  • That line tells the whole story.

  • The lead does something similar.


What s so important about the lead2

Direct frontal assault

Wing Chung fighting style

Kung Fu Choreography

Monkey dance

What’s so important about the lead?


What s so important about the lead3
What’s so important about the lead?

  • “Publishers always talk of the Frankfurt Book Fair with mystical awe and longing. If anthropologists were ever to make a study of publishers, then ‘Frankfurt’ would have to be accorded totemic status, connected with race history and the birth of the universal mind, when the first publishers swung down from the trees.”

  • Martin Amis, ‘Frankfurt’ , Guardian newspaper

  • Unless you are Amis, stick to the short and simple sentence.


What s so important about the lead4
What’s so important about the lead?

  • “The real seduction of the simple sentence is that taken by itself it is short and it is confined to carrying one idea.

  • “The real trouble with so many compound-complex sentences is that they have to carry too many ideas.”

  • Harold Evans, Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers


What s so important about the lead5
What’s so important about the lead?

  • The legendary crusading editor of the Sunday Times, Evans led a team of investigative reporters who exposed the Thalidomide scandal in the UK.

  • Also husband of Tina Brown, one-time editor of Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and currently of Newsweek


How to write a lead
How to write a lead

A lead must be simple, direct, concise; secondarily, it should be dramatic and vivid.

  • A good lead tells your reader what the rest of the story is about.

  • It offers the reader a roadmap. Unlike mystery or crime novelists, journalists disclose the key to the story from the very beginning.


How to write a lead1
How to write a lead

  • Typically, but not always, the direct lead contains four essentials: uniqueness, sourcing, when and where.

  • It says something specific and interesting, i.e., news-worthy.

  • It says when the event or action happened.

  • It gives the source (without necessarily identifying it in full).

  • It gives the place of the action.

  • Keep it short: 20-25 words, or less,

  • All these have to be done as concisely as possible.

  • In most cases, use a direct structure: S-V-O. Subject, verb and object. (Wong [subject] hit [verb] the man [object].)


How to write a lead2
How to write a lead

  • Example: British riots

  • There were riots in several British cities last night in which several shops were burned.

  • Rioters burned shops in several British cities last night.

  • “There was” is almost always avoidable.


How to write a lead3
How to write a lead

  • There was a rush to buy pre-sales flats at two developments yesterday despite recent drops in the stock market and rising oil prices.

  • The pre-sales action for flats at two developments was feverish yesterday despite the slumping stock market and rising oil prices.

  • Stronger, quicker.


How to write a lead4
How to write a lead

  • There should be more frequent checks on civil service housing benefits to prevent the possibility of abuse, a legislator-elect recommended yesterday.

  • “There should”?

  • More frequent auditing of civil service housing benefits yesterday will prevent abuse, a legislator-elect said yesterday.

  • Simple, direct, concise.


How to write a lead5
How to write a lead

  • It was announced yesterday that CLP Power would raise electricity charges by more than five per cent next year.

  • What’s wrong?


How to write a lead6
How to write a lead

  • Repeat: Use a direct structure: S-V-O. Subject, verb and object.

  • Another example: “US special forces team lost over South China Sea”


How to write a lead7

The Pentagon reports a navy helicopter carrying a team of special forces operatives was lost over the South China Sea last night. There were no survivors.

A US navy helicopter carrying a term of special forces operatives plunged into the South China Sea last night, killing everyone onboard, the Pentagon says.

How to write a lead


How to write a lead8

“Osama bin Laden mastermind of the 11 September 2001 attacks and the world's most wanted man, has been killed in a US operation in north-western Pakistan, Barack Obama has announced.”

May 2, Guardian

Why the indirect O-V-S structure?

“An elite crew of American forces killed Osama bin Laden during a daring raid on Monday in his compound north of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.”

May 2, Denver Post

This follows the usual S-V-O direct sentence.

How to write a lead


How to write a lead9
How to write a lead attacks and the world's most wanted man, has been killed in a US operation in north-western Pakistan, Barack Obama has announced.”

  • Repeat: Use a direct structure: S-V-O. Subject, verb and object.

  • Avoid long subsidiary clauses or titles.

  • Example: Eight robbers who were armed with AK-47 submachine guns raided the HSBC headquarters in Central yesterday and walked off with HK$70 million worth of god bars after posing as security guards and subduing bank executives while threatening to kill them.


How to write a lead10

Eight robbers raided the HSBC headquarters in Central yesterday.

Eight robbers raided the HSBC headquarters in Central yesterday and walked off with HK$70 million worth of gold bars.

The men posed as security guards and subdued bank executives while threatening to kill them.

How to write a lead


How to write a lead11
How to write a lead yesterday.

Use strong, dramatic language -- specific nouns, strong and/or colorful verbs.


How to write a lead12

A late-morning fire in the upper floors of an 18-story luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

A fire roared like a “blowtorch” through the upper floors of a Pokfulam luxury housing estate yesterday, killing three people.

How to write a lead


How to write a lead13
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • if their leads run beyond 20 to 25 words. To find places to CUT, begin with:

  • Unnecessary attribution.

  • Banish jargon and legalese.

  • Compound sentences joined by but and and.

  • Exact dates and times unless essential.

  • Long titles. (Professor of bio-analytical chemistry at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology)


How to write a lead14
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • Keep it shot:

  • “Hong Kong University of Science and Technology professor of bio-analytical chemistry Reinhard Renneberg ‎yesterday announced the complete sequencing of the genome of a species of Thai rice.”

  • “Hong Kong scientists have sequenced the complete genome of the popular Thai rice.”


How to write a lead15
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • Short and simple, NOT:

  • The former director of public prosecutions, Grenville Cross, yesterday criticized the secretary for justice, Wong Yan-lung, for calling on the public to keep quiet ahead of a forthcoming domestic helper's right of abode case.


How to write a lead16
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • “The former director of public prosecutions yesterday rounded on the secretary for justice for calling on the public to keep quiet ahead of a forthcoming domestic helper's right of abode case.

  • “Grenville Cross (pictured) said the court was perfectly capable of making impartial decisions despite the heated public debate. He also blamed justice chief Wong Yan-lung for trying to influence the court by making a bid to present late evidence, withdrawn at the last minute this week.” SCMP, Chris Ip, Aug 19, 2011


How to write a lead17
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • Four men convicted of murdering a German family of four in a frenzied knife attack were executed in China yesterday despite pleas for clemency from the victims’ relatives.

  • The what was different. Concrete, dramatic, specific language. Time. S-V-O. structure.


How to write a lead18
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • A LaSalle College physics teacher and a lab technician tipped off students about questions to appear in an A-level exam this year, a court heard yesterday.

  • The who was important. So was attribution. S-V-O. structure.


How to write a lead19
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • Jewelry tycoon Tse Sui-luen’s rags-to-riches story entered its darkest chapter yesterday when a High Court judge declared the self-made company chairman bankrupt.

  • Who was important. Place was important. Imagery (a bit of a cliché, but sometimes it can work). Time element. S-V-O. structure.


How to write a lead20
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • The sexual revolution has bypassed Hong Kong, according to a survey showing many men are still looking for passive, good-looking women and women want a man with a big bank balance.

  • Good approach, but what about this:


How to write a lead21
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • Men want passive beauties for mates while women want guys with deep pockets, a new survey says.


How to write a lead22
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • Director of Home Affairs Shelley Lee Lai-kuen has blamed pressure from the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation for violent scenes yesterday morning after police seized control of an industrial building in Tsuen Wan.

  • Long; unclear; heavy use of official titles and names slows the pace.


How to write a lead23
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • The Home Affairs director blamed Kowloon-Canton railway officials for provoking property owners to violence yesterday when police seized a building slated for demolition in Tsuen Wan.

  • Clarity -- property owners, demolition. Lean at outset. And 27 words versus 33.


How to write a lead24
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • The Airport Authority has appointed a businessman with no airport management experience as its next chief executive officer. He will replace Bill Lam Chung-lun, who was seconded from the Government by Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-Sang in January 1998.


How to write a lead25
How to write a lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • The Airport Authority’s acting chief executive was axed yesterday to make way for new blood after he failed to win an internal struggle to retain his position.


Why can t reporters write leads
Why can’t reporters write leads!? luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • If it’s so simple & straightforward, why do reporters keep violating these golden rules and producing long and impossibly complicated sentences in their copies?

  • Well, try summarizing in one short snappy sentence after a day covering fierce fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi; working through 140 pages of the HK government’s plan to scrap by-elections; or a 2-hour HSBC annual shareholders’ conference.


The lead1
The Lead luxury housing estate in Pokfulam killed three people yesterday.

  • Summary: The lead combines the most important and interesting elements from the event you are reporting in the fewest, simplest words possible.


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