Don’t Stop at Just the Headline

I have written thousands of news stories during my thirty years as a writer and journalist, and there has always been a standard requirement for responsible news providers in how a story – print or otherwise – should be constructed. I use the word ‘constructed’ because a proper news story is built, crafted, and finished using a formula that, when followed, provides the reader everything they need to make an informed decision.

Headlines and First Paragraphs

The sole purpose of a news story headline has always been to grab the immediate attention of the reader. A one or two line synopsis of the general topic of the story. A reliable news agency will be responsible with their headlines and avoid click bait, or use a misleading caption completely.

A good headline is not too wordy, always relevant to the story, and above all, honest. Many news agencies have entire departments or at least specific individuals that are dedicated to providing a headline to a story. Many of the news stories I submitted to my editor had only my working title, which was not what showed up in print or online. A good reporter or journalist should be working on a story, not a headline. That’s not our job

The first paragraph of a story is meant to provides a little more detail to capture your interest in the topic, to entice the reader to move further along by providing a little more substance, possibly a more detailed synopsis.

The Meat

The rest of the story should provides all pertinent details, facts, quotes, possibly photos and side notes. Essentially, the “meat” of the story. It should be well-written, grammatically correct, and provide a time line of events leading up to the conclusion, which should always match the headline and first paragraph.

If a news writer, reporter, or journalist has done their job well, the story will keep the reader as interested as if they were reading a best-selling novel. A proper news story should ask questions along the way, and if any answers are given in the article, the absolutely need to be truthful. This is the difference between tabloid reporting and providing news to the public.

Too often the lines are blurred here. Commentary should be in a specific section of the newspaper or on the news website that clearly marked as an editorial or opinion. If not, there should be a sub-headline stating that what you are about to read is or contains commentary or opinion. Punditry has no place in a news story.

Closing it up

The close of the story should provide source material if it within the framework of the first amendment, or doesn’t compromise the safety of the the source or sources. There is a reason that sources are protected. Some stories involve exposing dangerous people, including high ranking government officials.

Those of use who have spent our time in the news business understand how sacred these protections are, and while it may be frustrating to the reader sometimes when the term “anonymous sources” is bandied about, be sure there is a good reason for it.

Do Yourself a Favor

The reader does themselves a disservice when stopping at the headline, or even the first paragraph. A reliable and responsible news agency goes through lot of effort to provide accuracy, especially if it is a complicated topic or something that requires a good deal of reporting. Especially if it involves a scandal.

Doing the news well takes a lot of effort, painstaking research, endlessly poring over reports, following up leads, double and triple checking sources, verifying and vetting data, and sometimes puts people in precarious situations. 

There was a self-explanatory song that premiered on the very first broadcast of MTV back in 1981 called “Video Killed the Radio Star.” I would be remiss if I didn’t draw a parallel to social media, especially Twitter, killing the news business.

We’ve become accustomed to living in a world of 240 characters or two minute sound bites, that we expect to be able to comprehend world and life changing events in the same manner. 

We believe that it is possible to understand the intricate and fast paced world of politics, spirituality, the sciences, and scientific research equally as such.

You would do well to read the entire story if the headline has done its job. There’s no requirement for you to even believe what is reported. But there is an onus for the news agency to provide a news story that’s worth the time it takes to read it.

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