How to Write a Lead

 

shutterstock_13795741Yesterday morning, the lead article in The Wall Street Journal started with the following paragraph:

More than 95% of Crimeans voted to break way from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, according to preliminary results, in a referendum that raises the stakes in the most acute East-West confrontations since the Cold War.

The headline read, “Crimea Votes to Secede, Join Russia.” Underneath the sub-headline read, “Overwhelming Support to Separate From Ukraine Raises East-West Tensions; U.S. Prepares Sanctions.” Think about that for a second. Then, ask yourself what is wrong with that lead and with those headlines. Suppose for the moment that The Wall Street Journal is a newspaper. Suppose that its aim is to inform its readers about what is going on. Then, rewrite the lead and the headlines so that the story actually does what it is supposed to do. This is, I think, a useful exercise — for it raises a question of some importance. Are there any editors at The Wall Street Journal worthy of the name? For those of you who have no experience in writing for a daily newspaper, let me add something. The newspaper is written under the presumption that readers are in a hurry, that very few readers will get past the first few paragraphs of an article, and that one should never, never, never bury the lead by putting the most important information in the body of the article. So think about this article in this fashion. What is wrong with the lead?

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  1. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    I assume that the problem is not the use of the word “way” instead of “away,” but rather has something to do with the fact that there was no option to vote against secession from Ukraine, or that Russian troops were acting as election “observers”?

    • #1
  2. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    I’m going with the absence of the adjectives “Neo-Soviet” or “Stalinist”. Or any reference whatsoever to the vacuity of the “referendum”. Pathetic.

    • #2
  3. user_423975 Coolidge
    user_423975
    @BrandonShafer

    “Crimea Bows to Russian Pressure, Secedes”

    If I understood it right there two options were join Russia Now or Later.  Hardly a fair vote, and makes the use of “Support” in “Overwhelming Support to Separate” an odd choice.

    • #3
  4. Eric Hines Member
    Eric Hines
    @EricHines

    I’ll start with what seems to be your false premise–that The Wall Street Journal is a newspaper that folks read in a hurry.  That’s certainly true of USA Today, or the Los Angeles Times, or the New York Times, but it’s hardly true of papers like the WSJ or perhaps what the Chicago Tribune used to be.  Those readers read more carefully.

    As it happened, I read the article shortly after it was posted (they’d updated the numbers to 96% by then), and I found nothing wrong with it beyond the typical journalist’s elision of salient facts–like the fact that in the 1991 vote for independence from Russia, Crimea voted solidly for independence, and the separate polity of Sevastopol voted even more solidly for independence.  This elision led to the cascade elision of any information of what might have changed in the intervening 20+ years, besides Russian jackboots on the Crimean ground today.

    What would you have done differently?

    Eric Hines

    • #4
  5. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    This touches on a pet peeve of mine. I cancelled two bird cage liners because of the frequency with which headlines were not backed up by the stories themselves. I am sorry to say that this practice has also carried over to some of the news aggregation websites that breathlessly blare a headline (“The Earth Will End on Monday”) only to read that there are “disturbing indications of blah blah blah” that do not support the hyperventilation of the headline.

    • #5
  6. Marion Evans Member
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Seems odd that the pro-Russia vote was 95% when 12% of Crimea’s population are Tatars who dislike Russians and another 25% are non-Russian Ukrainians.  At any rate, since Putin is now such a fan of referendums, I eagerly await the Chechnya referendum and the Dagestan referendum on self-determination.

    • #6
  7. prahe@hillsdale.edu Contributor
    prahe@hillsdale.edu
    @PaulARahe

    The problem with the lead and the headlines in the print edition (which is what I was quoting) is that they leave one with the impression that this was a free election and that the numbers can be trusted. That something may have been amiss could easily have been indicated in the lead itself. As it stands, Putin could have written it himself.

    • #7
  8. prahe@hillsdale.edu Contributor
    prahe@hillsdale.edu
    @PaulARahe

    Odd, yes. More than odd. A bare majority one could perhaps believe. 95 or 96 percent? That is Putin sticking a finger in Obama’s eye. The more brazen the act, the more it brings home who is the alpha dog.

    • #8
  9. Manfred Arcane Member
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    I heard that anti-Russian citizens boycotted the election.  This would account for the lopsided result…and also underscore how misleading the title is.

    • #9
  10. user_252248 Member
    user_252248
    @GilBailie

    It’s especially disappointing when these things happen at the WSJ. We have come to expect them in many — most — other places. Thanks for raising the issue.

    • #10
  11. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Gil Bailie:
    It’s especially disappointing when these things happen at the WSJ.

    WSJ is now Rupert Murdoch with all of that which it implies. He is focused on selling papers and not being a free market ideologue (or, as some of us believe, a “completely reliable truth teller”).

    Crimea is a cautionary tale of what can happen when strong ethnic identities are perpetuated.

    • #11
  12. prahe@hillsdale.edu Contributor
    prahe@hillsdale.edu
    @PaulARahe

    Manfred Arcane:
    I heard that anti-Russian citizens boycotted the election. This would account for the lopsided result…and also underscore how misleading the title is.

     My guess is that they did not even bother to count the votes. In Russia the last time around, when Putin was barely polling 50%, he was awarded 63% of the votes.

    • #12
  13. user_71324 Contributor
    user_71324
    @TroySenik

    Rodin:

    Gil Bailie: It’s especially disappointing when these things happen at the WSJ.

    WSJ is now Rupert Murdoch with all of that which it implies. He is focused on selling papers and not being a free market ideologue (or, as some of us believe, a “completely reliable truth teller”). 

    We tend to overstate the role of newspaper owners, most of whom have practically no involvement in the day-to-day operations of the paper. It’s a little like owning a sports franchise: you cut the checks and you try to increase the value of your asset, but you generally don’t go into the weeds. And — also like a sports owner — it’s generally a bad idea when you do.

    Also, keep in mind that the whole of the WSJ is not the opinion pages. In fact, the actual reporting side of the WSJ is known for being just as liberal as the staff of most major dailies. That predates Newscorp’s ownership and continues today.

    • #13
  14. Dietlbomb Member
    Dietlbomb
    @Dietlbomb

    “Crimea Votes to Secede, Join Russia.”

    The issue isn’t the count of the vote. It’s the legitimacy of the vote. A better headline would be: “Russia Attempts to Legitimize Crimean Occupation With Sham Election”

    More than 95% of Crimeans voted to break way from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, according to preliminary results, in a referendum that raises the stakes in the most acute East-West confrontations since the Cold War.

    This should be further into the analysis. The lead should be about how the illegal Russian occupation held a sham election.

    • #14
  15. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    What’s missing?

    First, it states “95% of Crimeans” of which there is no such thing. There are residents of the Crimea: Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars. Then because of the lead you assume there was 100% turnout, because how else could 95% vote one way or the other?

    Also missing is that the area is under armed occupation. That’s fairly significant.

    Could that be all? No! There are legitimacy questions when turnout numbers show, apparently, 117% turnout in Sevastopol.

    Look, after reading the interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn I have some questions about what might have been going on in terms of discrimination, but another article described the region as “the Russia that works.” In other words, a fairly solid, functioning economy in the region. The people of the Crimea might, just might, be hesitant to join Russia and throw it all away.

    • #15
  16. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Troy Senik, Ed.:

    Rodin:

    WSJ is now Rupert Murdoch with all of that which it implies. He is focused on selling papers and not being a free market ideologue (or, as some of us believe, a “completely reliable truth teller”).

    We tend to overstate the role of newspaper owners, most of whom have practically no involvement in the day-to-day operations of the paper. It’s a little like owning a sports franchise: you cut the checks and you try to increase the value of your asset, but you generally don’t go into the weeds. And — also like a sports owner — it’s generally a bad idea when you do.
    Also, keep in mind that the whole of the WSJ is not the opinion pages. In fact, the actual reporting side of the WSJ is known for being just as liberal as the staff of most major dailies. That predates Newscorp’s ownership and continues today.

     This is true. It is also true that Murdoch is hardly a craven figure. His physically and morally courageous leadership in defeating the print unions made him more important to Britain’s recovery than any other person besides Thatcher.

    • #16
  17. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Was about to say.  I used to really like the WSJ until I started reading it daily, and I realized that it is just as liberal as any other paper.  Which was a bummer, because I really enjoyed getting a print newspaper delivered to my house.  For that content, and for that price, I could never justify it.  I don’t know that there is a national-sized paper worth reading, anymore (actually, if anyone has suggestions, I’m open).  About 3 years ago, I stopped reading anything but Ricochet.  I’ll follow links around, but this is always the first place I come.

    • #17
  18. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Marion Evans:
    Seems odd that the pro-Russia vote was 95% when 12% of Crimea’s population are Tatars who dislike Russians and another 25% are non-Russian Ukrainians. At any rate, since Putin is now such a fan of referendums, I eagerly await the Chechnya referendum and the Dagestan referendum on self-determination.

     What’s odd about it?  just because:

    there was a total news monopoly by Russia

    the ballot had no way to actually cast a “no” vote

    the Crimea was occupied by Russian troops

    the votes were counted by, guess who

    Odd? Not at all, totally expected

    when you have Cuban ” election” conditions expect Cuban results….

    • #18
  19. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how.”

    Josef Stalin

    From the Master himself

    • #19
  20. user_521942 Member
    user_521942
    @ChrisWilliamson

    I think the New York Times got it right by mentioning the presence of Russian soldiers: “Crimea Votes to Secede From Ukraine as Russian Troops Keep Watch.”  And the lead clause sets the right tone: “With thousands of heavily armed Russian troops occupying this perennially embattled peninsula….”

    • #20
  21. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Well, I guess you could call it “overwhelming support” when the turnout is 123%. It even sounds as though ID was required to vote; didn’t even have to be Crimean, let alone Ukrainian ID though. I guess that’s a voter ID concept our Attorney General might get behind.

    • #21
  22. Marion Evans Member
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    “Seems odd…” was meant to be sarcastic.

    • #22
  23. user_51254 Member
    user_51254
    @BereketKelile

    I came across an article yesterday about a research paper that looked into ballot order effects, that is, how the placement of a candidate’s name affects the share of the vote that person will get. The article mentioned that Putin had his name at the top of the ballot in the last elections in order to boost his numbers. It’s just one method that autocrats can use to manipulate the election in a not-so-overt manner.

    • #23
  24. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Bereket Kelile:
    I came across an article yesterday about a research paper that looked into ballot order effects, that is, how the placement of a candidate’s name affects the share of the vote that person will get. The article mentioned that Putin had his name at the top of the ballot in the last elections in order to boost his numbers. It’s just one method that autocrats can use to manipulate the election in a not-so-overt manner.

     But the referendum wasn’t subtle like that. It was somewhere between Colbert’s schtick of “Bush: great President or greatest President?” and ballots with “Romney/ Ryan” and “Mitt/ Paul” on them.

    • #24

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