By Prof. Mark Grabowski
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
• 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.
• 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.
• 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
(This is a summary 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
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.
• 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.
Be sure to get direct quotes!
• Speech stories need quotes from the
• 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
Which quote is better?
Broadly speaking, a good quote is when someone
says something interesting, and says it in an
Look at the following two examples – which one is
– “We will use U.S. military force in an appropriate and
– “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.”
More Advice on Covering Speeches
• What follows are some general tips for
covering speeches along with a suggested
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.
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.
Bring the right materials
• Notebook, pen, recorder, perhaps a camera or
• 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
• 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
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
4) The rest of the story: combines quotes,
descriptions, background information and audience
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.
Sample Writing Exercise
• Instructions: In an hour or less, type up a
story based on the information given on the