Covering speeches: Tips for journalists


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Explains how journalists should cover speeches.

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Covering speeches: Tips for journalists

  1. 1. Journalism 101 Covering Speeches By Prof. Mark Grabowski
  2. 2. Why it matters • Covering a speech is a typical assignment for journalists. It may include an individual speech, a lecture, a forum, a press conference or a debate. • Once you get the hang of it, it’s not too tricky. But many young journalists initially struggle with speech stories. • Too often they fail to explain to readers why the speech matters or what was newsworthy about it. Instead of focusing on who said what, they focus on dull details.
  3. 3. • For example, many a college newspaper article has begun with a topical lead like: On Nov. 17, Gen. Norman Johnson addressed students at Anywhere University. The event was held in the Performing Arts Center at 3 p.m. It was sponsored by the Student Affairs Office. • Approaches like that are boring because they don’t explain to the reader why they should care about the story. Remember, avoid topical leads. The Lead
  4. 4. • A better approach would be something along the lines of: Transgendered soldiers should be allowed to serve in the military, a high-ranking U.S. Army leader said Monday. “A soldier’s gender has nothing to do with his or her ability to serve and protect the nation,” Gen. Norman Johnson, under secretary of the U.S. Army, told an audience of approximately 300 students and faculty at Anywhere University. (This is a summary lead)
  5. 5. Creative Lead • You could also try a more creative approach. For example: With New York’s primary election only one week away, Adelphi University sophomore Kate Smith still is undecided about who to support. That’s why she joined approximately 200 other students Monday at an interactive forum to learn more about the top presidential primary candidates’ positions on a range of issues. “It was very educational,” said Smith, a biology major. “I didn’t even know who Bernie Sanders was before today and now I think I’ll vote for him.” The event, “Prep for the Primary,” featured students presenting the top two Democratic candidates’ and the top Republican candidates’ stances on education, immigration, racial justice, family and reproductive health and terrorism.
  6. 6. Organizing story • Don’t worry about the chronology of the speech. If the most interesting thing the speaker says comes at the end of his speech, make that your lede. Likewise, if the most boring stuff comes at the start of the speech, put that at the bottom of your story – or leave it out entirely. Rarely is chronological order the best or most interest way to organize a speech story, so avoid covering the speech like you’re a stenographer.
  7. 7. Be sure to get direct quotes! • Speech stories need quotes from the speaker(s). • Quote the exact words of the speaker. Use the most interesting quotes in your story. • A good quote should: grab the reader’s attention, evoke images in the reader’s mind and convey a sense of the speaker’s personality.
  8. 8. Which quote is better? Broadly speaking, a good quote is when someone says something interesting, and says it in an interesting way. Look at the following two examples – which one is better? – “We will use U.S. military force in an appropriate and decisive manner.” – “When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”
  9. 9. More Advice on Covering Speeches • What follows are some general tips for covering speeches along with a suggested story format.
  10. 10. Research the topic & speaker • Ask the organizers for a speaker’s bio or look him up on the Web ahead of time. Get background info on the topic, look at articles previously written on it. And see if you can either get a copy of the speech ahead of time or at least talk to the speaker in advance to get a feel for what the speech will cover. This way you can write a skeleton outline ahead of time and fill in the details during the speech. Of course, you may learn of the speech so close to deadline that this may not be possible.
  11. 11. Arrive early & get good seat • The venue may fill. You don’t want to be late and miss part of speech. You may not be allowed in after starts – especially if you’re going to an event at The White House. Sit where you can hear well.
  12. 12. Bring the right materials • Notebook, pen, recorder, perhaps a camera or videocamera. • Take notes as if recorder doesn’t exist. But a recorder is good to capture precise language – the speaker may say something controversial or other media may be there and you want quotes that are consistent with theirs.
  13. 13. Estimate crowd size • Every speech story should include a general estimate of how many people are in the audience. You don’t need an exact number, but there’s a big difference between an audience of 50 and one of 500. Also, try to describe the general makeup of the audience. Are they college students? Senior citizens? Business people? • You can ask organizers for a head count. If their number seems way off, you may want to mention that.
  14. 14. Don’t summarize entire speech • Most speeches are boring and really only deliver one message. So, don’t try to cover every point the speaker makes. Focus on the most important stuff. That’s what the reader wants to know. If s/he wanted to hear the whole speech, she would have attended or watched on TV.
  15. 15. Listen for the take-away moment • Many speeches have a pivotal moment that defines them. Maybe the speaker says something controversial or suggests an unusual plan of action. If audience has a strong reaction to something said, chances are that’s the takeaway moment. The take away moment is what you should lead with, and go into more detail about later in your story. Speeches are generally planned events, but it’s the unexpected turn of events that can make them really interesting.
  16. 16. Stay after & get audience reaction • Don’t leave immediately after speech, unless you need to cover another event or get back to the newsroom to make a fast-approaching deadline. After the speech ends, always interview a few audience members to get their reaction. This can sometimes be the most interesting part of your story. If there’s a reception, go to it and talk to people there. Try to grab the speaker and ask follow-up questions or clarify points he made, if possible. This way you can ensure you understood what he was saying. Don’t be timid in asking tough questions.
  17. 17. Balance your story • People often make speeches in areas or places they are comfortable with, where they know they will be surrounded by their supporters. So, the audience’s reaction may be very partisan. Talk to other people affected by the speech, who may not be in attendance. If the College President, for example, mentions at an alumni reception that he is raising tuition, that won’t affect alumni. But it will affect students, who likely won’t be in attendance. Get reaction from students.
  18. 18. Forget the PR speak – focus on the news • Corporations, politicians, sports teams and celebrities often try to use speeches, particularly press conferences, as public relations tools. In other words, they want reporters to put the most positive spin possible on what's being said. • But it's the reporter's job to ignore the PR talk and get to the truth of the matter. So if the CEO announces that his company has just suffered its worst losses ever, but in the next breath says he thinks the future is bright, forget about the bright future - the real news is the huge losses, not the PR sugarcoating.
  19. 19. Don’t be intimidated • Whether you're covering a speech with a celebrity, the university president or the governor, don't let yourself be intimidated by their power or stature. That's what they want. Once you're intimidated, you'll stop asking tough questions, and remember, it's your job to ask tough questions of the most powerful people in our society.
  20. 20. Writing the story • Reporters have two jobs: pass along the speaker’s message and also help readers examine that message. Keep in mind that what’s newsworthy may not be what the speaker thinks should be reported or the focus of your story. Or what’s newsworthy may not be what was said during the speech but what was not said. Or the news may be how the crowd reacted to what was said. What’s newsworthy may not even factor into the speech. The news may come after the speech, when the speaker is answering questions.
  21. 21. • If an answer provides the most interesting piece of news, lead with that. Do not include everything said in the speech, just the most important parts. Take good notes so you can use direct quotes in your story. Make sure all names and titles are correct. Write the story as soon as possible. Writing the story as soon as possible gets the information down more accurately.
  22. 22. Suggested story structure 1) The lead: the most newsworthy point the speaker made. If the speaker is not well-known, such as a famous person, it’s probably best to use a delayed identification lead. 2) Second paragraph: powerful quote from speech to reinforce the lead. 3) Third paragraph: where, when, why the speech was given. 4) The rest of the story: combines quotes, descriptions, background information and audience reactions.
  23. 23. Things to avoid • Using the words addressed, or spoke to, or spoke on, or spoke about in the lead • Backing into the lead: In an address to the Garden City Rotary Club Thursday… • Telling your readers what the speaker thinks or feels or believes instead of what he/she said • Trying to add liveliness to your story by characterizing what the speaker said or how strongly he or she felt it, instead of telling us what he said: Jones stressed the potential problems for societies that choose not to value the lives of the unborn.
  24. 24. Example of Speech Story
  25. 25. Sample Writing Exercise • Visit: • Instructions: In an hour or less, type up a story based on the information given on the link.