Are You Burying the Lead? Take This Simple Test

I heard this lead on a radio newscast the other day:  “United Flight 88 is en route to Newark, New Jersey.”

Ok I give up … why is this news?

It wasn’t until the second line that I found out why – Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng was on board, having won the diplomatic fight to come to the US after escaping from house arrest in late April.

I’m sure the journalist who wrote this lead had been writing this story all morning, was sick of leading with the same top line every hour (“Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng is on his way to the US”), and decided to shake things up.  But as it happened, this was the only newscast I heard all day (it was a Saturday), and that was probably the case for a large number of listeners who were similarly confused that the progress of a regularly scheduled flight to Newark was considered the most important story of the day.  No doubt all of us who’ve been involved in newscast writing have been guilty of this – thinking we need to vary things up so much from hour to hour that we end up burying the lead.  Variation in the wording of your stories is indeed crucial, but burying the lead is inexcusable.

Newscast writers, here’s a simple way to keep yourselves honest:

When you’ve put together your newscast, pull out the first sentence from every story and put them in a list.  Would they make sense if you read them on the air as headlines?  Do you know what the top stories of the hour are after reading your list?  If not, chances are you’re being too cute and burying your leads – so take another shot at it!

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Are You Burying the Lead? Take This Simple Test

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