Freedom (of the Press) Fighters

For centuries, citizens have relied on the media to get their news. Whether it be regarding world politics, who their favorite team is trading, or which celebrity is the newest train wreck, people turn to various sources to get information. These are mainly are from print, such as newspapers and magazines, and broadcast, which includes television and radio.

Traditionally, the pieces are delivered by writers, journalists and reporters, almost all of them professional. But in recent years citizen journalism, which refers to idea of non-professionals (usually everyday citizens) reporting, has risen dramatically.

It has become an issue today, because some feel that it is not the responsibility of the general public to report and that they should leave it up to journalists and others in the fields. Also, their stories might have a severe lack of objectivity given that the are not coming from trained or schooled sources. Others, however, see it as a free right.

Young people have taken notice, mainly because they are one group engaging in the activity.

So how exactly do they feel? Students at Nassau Community College had a lot to say, and they were privy to the seeing positives of the issue.

“ When people are not driven by agenda, they are free to write about what they really believe in.” Said Adam Michaelson.

Michaelson’s comment refers to the fact that since citizen journalists are less likely to be governed by a boss or editor, they have the choice to select what topic they would be most interested in covering, or one that might hit the closest to home. For the latter, many have set up blogs, on-line journals illustrating views on everything from day-to-day life, to opinions on movies or political races.

The internet has blasted citizen journalism into the stratosphere. Technology has given us the means to get our ideas out in the open without even having to leave our bedroom. E-mail lets stories be sent back and forth instantly, while search engines make finding a fact which might have taken hours of research to come across in earlier times available in only minutes. Blogs, which can be created for free, let a person report or commentate at whatever length and rate they choose. As many celebrities and politicians have created their own blogs, many bloggers may feel a sense of validation from the possibly growing legitimacy of blog-use.

But the internet has assisted more than just independent journalists.

“ I think the internet has helped [journalism.]” Michaelson said. “ A lot of people don’t pick up a paper, but they go online. A lot of major news organizations are relying on it.”

Indeed, news sites often ask their followers to send in their own stories electronically, to contribute to coverage, which may be a beacon of growing appreciation for citizen journalism.

Nassau students differed, through, on the subject of whether it was the citizen’s responsibility to report, particularly if they were a witness who might be one of few people prepared to report accurate facts. (For instance, a civilian who was present for a bank robbery or act of vandalism.)

“ It’s their obligation.” Samantha DeVictoria said.

Michaelson was not so quick to agree with her.

“ It depends on how sensitive the information is.”

A photographer himself, [Michaelson] also commented on the use of photography in citizen (photo)journalism.

“ It’s all in the story. You can twist any picture, and that can be a problem.”

Since cameras are everywhere, including most cell phones, many people use more than words to put stories out there.

But Michaelson picks up on one of several negatives that exist concerning citizen journalism.

“ Some of it is a lot more biased. It is harder to site sources. People can end up spewing a whole lot of untracked (expletive).”

One comment by DeVictoria added to a sense of disregard for citizen journalism.

“People don’t take what they have to say seriously. There is a big gap in between what is professional and what is not.”

Even a talented writer who may be accurate and non-biased may have his work looked over or frowned upon if he is not writing for a professional publication. But is this reasonable?

DeVictoria thinks a cue exists that professionals might take from citizen journalists, despite a widespread notion that their work is of lesser value.

“ Be more honest.”

With citizen journalism on the rise, but mixed feelings from professionals concerning it remaining the same, the two will simply have to learn to coexist.

-Amy Eiferman

A Lede Should …

Singer and founder of WITNESS, Peter Gabriel, explains why he is a proponent of citizen journalism, opening with a revealing anecdote (CAUTION:  Contains graphic scenes).



* contain the essence of the story. What is this story about, thematically, and why should we care? Think of the lede as Part Two of the headline.

* Communicate the key information. Journalistic tradition would classify this data under “the five W’s and one H”: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. This system is useful to the writing of any story, but a lede that contains all these points will often be overwrought – “St. Penelope’s Boys’ School Chancellor Bob Tompkins presented his resignation to Senate on Wednesday due to allegations of chronic alcoholism made by Head Boy Mike Foss during last January’s intramural Debating Club championship”.

A snappy summary or a teaser is more likely to draw the reader in – “St. Penelope’s Bob Tompkins finally kicked the chancellorship habit on Wednesday, after months of rumours about his private life.” The details come in the next few paragraphs. This approach highlights the priorities of the story and makes for better writing.

* Capture the imagination. A lede should raise questions, not just provide information. Otherwise we might be content with the factoid and stop reading. The Why of those five W’s is always more complex than can be spelled out in a paragraph. If your lede opens a window onto the complexities, we’ll feel challenged instead of patronized.

* Set mood and tone. Ledes can be intimate or cold, tragic or hilarious, hard-hitting or celebratory. One of these choices will be right for your story, and a mismatch might be deadly.

* Point the way towards an interpretation, without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Whatever you put first in the story will determine how we read the rest of it. “St. Penelope’s long-time leader was driven out of office this week” will frame a very different story than “The scandal-ridden reign of Bob Tompkins finally crash-landed on Wednesday.”

* Be appropriate to the audience. Your lede might contain a different idea if your publication is geared primarily towards science students, or towards gays and lesbians, than if it’s a general-audience newspaper – eg., “The chemistry department lost a strong advocate Wednesday when Chancellor Bob Tompkins resigned his post,” or, “Bob Tompkins resigned on Wednesday, to the pleasure of campus queers who considered the former chancellor an apologist for St. Penelope’s anti-gay policies.”

* Be as concise as possible. Don’t stall the reader with peripheral elements – “On Wednesday, at the third Senate meeting this year, the chancellor of St. Penelope’s, Bob Tompkins, rose to present his resignation.” Instead, make the lede an active, dynamic agent.

* Use short and simple sentences. Mainstream journalism prescribes a maximum 25 to 30 words for a lede. You can loosen it up a bit, but make sure your lede maintains its momentum.


SUMMARY LEDE: tries to cram as much of the “five W’s and an H” into a single sentence as possible. It is also known as the standard lede, and is used for standard inverted-pyramid news. Eg., “Jean Chrétien intends to fight urban poverty by rounding up all the drug dealers in Canada and locking them in small steel boxes, the prime minister told the Alberta Chamber of Commerce in a campaign speech in Red Deer last night.”

SINGLE-ITEM LEDE: concentrates on just one or two of these elements for a bigger punch. E.g., “Jean Chrétien has warned the nation’s drug dealers they won’t breathe easy if he’s re-elected.”

QUOTE LEDE: uses a dramatic quotation, usually from one of your sources, to launch the story. This should be used sparingly, and only when the quote is fantastic. Often paraphrasing the quote, as in the first example above, will be more effective — most people do not speak in soundbites. E.g., “‘I say we stick those evil satanist negro child-abuser pushers where the sun don’t shine.’”

“A red-faced Jean Chrétien shouted these words to the Alberta Chamber of Commerce last night, justifying his plan to “lock all the drug dealers in Canada in tiny metal boxes and throw away the keys.’”

CARTRIDGE LEDE: uses one word or short phrase as a teaser for the rest of the lede. This usually seems gimmicky and, again, should be used sparingly. E.g., “Sardine tins.

“That’s what Jean Chrétien intends to use to contain the drug problem and cure urban ills.”

QUESTION LEDE: poses a question to the reader, which the story proceeds to answer. Occasionally the source of an amusing riddle, but more often confusing and counterproductive to the average news story. E.g., “How can we prevent crime, solve urban poverty and stimulate the steel industry all at the same time?

“Jean Chrétien’s answer might disturb some Canadians.”

(or, alternatively, “Has Jean Chrétien finally lost it?”)

ANALOGY LEDE: makes a comparison between the issue or event at hand and something more familiar. Usually the fruit of inspiration, this kind of lede either works or it doesn’t. E.g., “Civil libertarians fear that Jean Chrétien’s prescription for drug abuse could make the War Measures Act look lax.”

A popular type of analogy lede is the Janus-faced lede, in which you look back into the past and/or forward into the future for comparison with the event or issue in question.

DISTINCTIVE INCIDENT, PICTURE OR CONTRAST LEDE: uses an anecdote or image, or contrasting images, to illustrate the point of the story. Often brings in a human element, and gives the story personality, specificity and colour. A good way to improve stilted news style, and to highlight ironies.

E.g., “While Jean Chrétien addressed them last night, the members of the Alberta Chamber of Commerce finished off their dinner wines and started in on dessert cocktails. Some enjoyed fine cigars or puffed on long cigarettes as they smiled at the prime minister’s words.

“And when Chrétien promised to lock up every last drug dealer in the nation, the assembled tobacco company execs and beer wholesalers rose to their feet to applaud.”

This kind of lede requires a bit more space to stretch out in. In one draft of this paper, for example, I tried to write a lede using “real characters” to depict the economic benefits drug dealing can bring to depressed neighbourhoods, contrasted with Chrétien’s righteousness. But it took so much room it would have had to be a feature. Also, if overused or overdone, this style of writing can become precious or sentimental.

COSMIC LEDE: I’m only telling you about this one so you can make sure you don’t use it. A cosmic lede makes some grand sweeping statement about an issue (or about life itself) as a way of introducing the subject. It’s a pretentious, lazy way to write, particularly endemic to bad arts writing. The only way I can imagine this sort of lede working is as parody.

Bad e.g., “When politicians talk about drugs, the subject stirs many emotions and conjures up competing ideas of good and evil.”

Better e.g., “When politicians talk about drugs, you sometimes have to wonder if they’re stoned.”


* The lede doesn’t have to be the first thing you write. In fact, wrestling with a lede can either prevent you from getting the story done on time or misguide you in how you slant the story. If a lede doesn’t trip off your typewriter, wait until you’ve finished the core of the story, figure out an angle, then try again.

* Meetings, speeches, demonstrations, news conferences and the like are usually not news. The decisions or issues raised at them are news, and that’s what should appear in your lede.

* The first part of your story does not have to correspond to the chronological first event. Start with the point, then fill in the background.

* Make sure you attribute opinions in your lede. But don’t clutter the lede with over-identification — use either the name or the job title, and then use the other label in the next reference to clarify the attribution. (Lede: “Jean Chrétien said today…” Second sentence: “The prime minister told businessmen that…”) Alternatively, use a general attribution, like “civil libertarians” above, but make sure you name specific groups or persons in the next couple of paragraphs.

* If at all possible, avoid using the full name of an organization in your lede, particularly if it’s a long one. Bureaucratic nomenclature slows down the sentence and turns off the reader. Paraphrase it so the “Alberta Chamber of Commerce, Red Deer Branch” becomes “a group of Red Deer businessmen.” And again, give the full name later.

* As well, never use an acronym or short form in a lede or headline, unless it’s a household word like “U.S.” or “CBC”. Introduce acronyms only in the body of the story. (NB: The acronym for your student government is not a household word, even if you print it ten times an issue and use it all the time in the household.)

Writing Your Lede

Taken from Newsroom Training, written by Steve Buttry for Writing Resources:

You need a crisp lede and a strong focus to keep the reader going. These techniques, compiled by Steve Buttry, Writing Coach, Omaha World-Herald, can help strengthen your story, especially the critical top few paragraphs. (June, 2002)

Writing Your Lede

Your lede sets the pace for your story. A brief, breezy lede invites the reader into a story with the promise of a lively pace. A ponderous lede invites the reader to move to the next story, in which case it doesn’t matter how long or how good the rest of your story is.

  • Start early.
    As you’re reporting, think about the lede. Are you observing an exchange that might provide a scene the lede? Did you just hear the fact that belongs in the lede? Don’t lock in on one lede so that you miss a better one that comes up. Use the reporting process as an audition for potential ledes. Write them down as they occur to you, either in your notebook or on the screen.
  • Write as you report.
    After your first interview or two, start writing. You may not have your lede yet, but starting to write gets your mind into the story earlier. Keep writing after subsequent interviews. Write each time as though this is the story. You may write two or three ledes before you’re finished with the story. But have you hurt your story if your seventh paragraph, or your 15th, has as much polish as your lede?
  • Avoid the blank screen.
    Too many writers spend too long laboring over the lede before they get started writing. If you don’t have a good idea for a lede, write a simple declarative sentence and get on with the story: “The School Board meeting discussed education Monday.” Yes, it’s dull. No, you’d never turn that in. But it may get you started and keep you from wasting time staring at the blank screen. Writing the story may help you find your lede. Then you go back and write the better lede.
  • Use story elements.
    Decide which is the strongest element in your story: plot, character, setting, conflict, theme. Your lede should focus on the strongest element. Or perhaps the lede should highlight the intersection of two elements: a character in conflict, perhaps. If plot is the strongest element, beware of starting at the beginning. Newspaper readers and editors may not read long enough to find out how it comes out. Consider starting at the climax, or at least at a critical moment that establishes the conflict.
  • Don’t forget the basics.
    If you’re stuck for a lede, ask which of the five W’s or How is the most important question for this story.
  • Expand on the basics.
    Maybe your lede lies not in one of the five W’s, but in a related question: How much? So what? What next? Why not? Who benefits? Who’s hurt?
  • Write without your notes.
    This is a helpful technique for your whole first draft, but it’s especially helpful in writing the lede. Notes can be a distraction. Go back to them later when you’re checking facts.
  • Get to the point.
    If you use an anecdotal or scene-setting lede that delays your explanation of the underlying issue, introduce or at least allude to the issue in your lede.
  • Entice the reader.
    Don’t treat your lede as a suitcase into which you will cram as much as you can fit. Regard it more like a g-string, brief and enticing. If your lede captures the essence of your story in a few words, the reader will read on to learn the facts. You don’t need them all in the lede. A long lede shows a lack of confidence, like you don’t believe I’ll read the whole story so you have to tell me as much as you can as fast as you can.

Strengthening Your Lede

Once you’ve finished the story, go back and strengthen your lede, even if it’s good and especially if it’s long.

  • Challenge every word.
    However long your lede is, consider whether it could be shorter. If it’s longer than 30 words, it’s almost definitely too long. A lede that long has to flow smoothly to work, and few ledes that long flow smoothly. Try writing a lede of 10 words or fewer. Maybe you can’t for this story, but it’s always good to try. Especially if your lede is more than 20 words, challenge each piece of the lede and ask whether that actually has to be in your very first paragraph.
  • Challenge the verbs.
    Are you using the strongest appropriate verb? Is it in active voice? Never use a form of the verb “to be” in your lede without trying some alternatives. Sometimes it’s the only accurate verb, but see if a stronger verb works. Challenge other weak verbs, such as have, do and get.
  • Avoid vague phrases.
    If your lede starts with (or uses) vague phrases such as there are or it is, see if you can rewrite it with strong, specific subjects and verbs.
  • Keep it simple.
    Ask whether you’re trying to tell too much in your lede. Are you answering all the 5 W’s, when a couple could wait till the second graf? Don’t try to cram everything into your lede.
  • Make one point.
    Does your lede have multiple points? If so, perhaps you haven’t decided what the story truly is about. Decide which point is most important and write a lede that makes just that point.
  • Remember the news.
    Does your lede get right to the news? Does it emphasize the news?
  • Stamp out punctuation.
    Many of the best ledes have one piece of punctuation, a period. Regard multiple commas or dashes as red flags. See if you can write a smoother sentence with just one comma or none. If you have lots of punctuation in the lede, read it aloud so you can hear whether it’s choppy or whether it flows smoothly.
  • Minimize attribution.
    Attribution lengthens a lede, as well as weakening it. Can you state something as a fact, rather than hedging it with attribution? If not, do you need to bolster your reporting, so you can write more authoritatively?
  • Subtract numbers.
    If you use any numbers in your lede, their impact must be strong and their meaning and relationship must be immediately evident. If the reader has to stop and ponder the numbers, they don’t belong in the lede. (They may not even belong in the story, but in a graphic). Rarely could you justify using more than two numbers in a lede.
  • Challenge prepositions and conjunctions.
    Identify each prepositional phrase in the lede and consider whether the information it adds is worth the words it adds. Can it be replaced with a single adjective or adverb? If your lede contains and, or or but, consider whether you’re introducing another element that you should save for the second paragraph.
  • Challenge adjectives and adverbs.
    Consider whether the lede would be stronger without each of the adjectives adverbs. What do they add? Can you eliminate them by using more specific (and stronger) nouns or verbs?
  • Challenge phrases.
    Can you eliminate a phrase without hurting the lede? Can you replace a phrase with a single word?
  • Write an alternative lede.
    Write a shorter lede and evaluate the two side by side. Or write a lede taking another approach. Don’t accept a long lede without testing it against a shorter lede.
  • One hedge is plenty.
    If you’ve hedged the central statement of your lede, with a “may” or “might,” do you really need to hedge again by attributing it? Consider whether you can write a stronger statement in the first place. Or at least consider whether you can make the hedged statement without attribution.
  • Don’t sweat the details.
    An important detail might strengthen your lede, but many details bog down a lede. Tighten your lede by cutting details that can wait until later in the story. Rarely do you need both a person’s name and identification in the lede. If the name is not immediately recognizable to the reader, just use the identification in the lede. Or if the person is in the story as Everyman, just use the name and tell the reader later who he is.
  • Don’t get lost in process.
    On many beats, particularly government and court beats, reporters must learn and understand lots of processes. Sometimes the reporter loses perspective and thinks the process is as important to readers as it is to sources. Readers care most about results. If your lede focuses on process, or includes some process details, consider whether it would be stronger focusing on results.
  • Try to make fun of your lede.
    Did you write any obvious statements that will draw a “duh!” from the reader? Do you have any awkward juxtapositions or double entendres? If you know a smart-ass colleague who makes fun of such stories in the paper, enlist his aid by asking him to read your story in advance. If something does get by him, at least you know he won’t be the one making fun this time.
  • Focus on reader impact.
    Does your lede tell the reader why this story is important to her? If not, should it?
  • Say what is, not what isn’t.
    Sometimes you have to tell the reader what isn’t, but usually you should tell the reader what is. If your lede has a not or a never, consider whether you can recast to say what is.
  • Punch quickly.
    Examine the first few words of your lede. Are they strong? Do they get to the point immediately? Can you open with key words that immediately identify what the story is about?
  • Close with a kick.
    Examine the last few words of your lede. Are they strong? Do they carry the reader right into the next paragraph.

–Taken from Newsroom Training, written by Steve Buttry for Writing Resources.