Writing the Breaking News Story: When Coverage Won’t Wait

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while as I’ve gotten a lot of comments and questions recently about writing breaking news stories. When I tell people that from assignment to publication some of my stories are turned around in a matter of hours (other publications have even shorter time frames), they are surprised. How could I have possibly have done the work necessary to get a story online so fast, they ask. Or they wonder how I could possibly find what to say, since it takes them so long to sit and think about whatever it is they want to write.

Therein lies at least part of the answer. When it comes to breaking news, there is no room for thinking. Well, of course you’re thinking, but not in the creative sense.

You see, for me at least, breaking news is the most straight-forward example of the old journalism adage of: Who, What, Where, When, Why and, sometimes, but not always, How. Which, if you think about it, makes breaking news pretty formulaic. You have to really stick to what you know about a situation.

However, this is just a part of what goes into writing these stories. Here then are some tips for those of you who’d like to try your hand at breaking news;

* Flowery language: Sure many people dream of writing the perfect sentence, that combination of words that will ensure your story will live on for years, one that will be studied and dissected by English majors the world over. That, however, can never happen with a breaking news story. There’s no place for it in a breaking story. In some cases it

Consider the following fictitious examples from a breaking news story on flooding:

  1. The river rushed over the banks sending water streaming down local streets and into people’s homes.   
  2. The water lapped at the edge of the shore, as if testing how far it could run. With nothing to hold it back, the sheer volume of water that was pooling on the side of the banks surged forward. A menacing wall of liquid slithered its way across the shores and onto local roads where residents waited and watched.

Both of those samples tell the same story, but the first one is what you’d find in a breaking news story. It is short, straight-forward and clear and concise. You need to get to the point quickly and succulently or your reader will go elsewhere for the coverage.

The second version builds up to the news, slowly almost as if the events were unfolding in a novel. This type of news writing would work for a next-day feature or follow-up story when readers will be more receptive to letting the tale meander.

* Interviewing Is Listening— In a breaking news situation, you are bound to have lots of questions you need answered. You want to talk to eyewitnesses, people on the ground and get their statements. So you sit down and start planning out your questions, and proceed to ask them – going just off your list of questions. Sure you get the answers you are looking for, but you missed a much better interview because you kept on your script.    

I’ve actually found that people who are affected by a breaking news event – natural disaster, accident, etc. – actually want to talk. No, they need to talk about what they have experienced and seen. If given the opportunity, they will provide you with more details that you might otherwise have gotten.

What then of your list of questions? Do you simply not say anything or ask any questions? No. You definitely want to guide the people who are interviewing, but then let them speak and listen carefully, what they say will lead you to your follow-up questions. All of which will make for a stronger story.

* Get It Write and Right – Yes, you have a deadline. Yes, your editor is breathing down your neck. No, you can’t afford to just wait around until the story falls into your lap. But, and this is a big but, you can’t afford to be wrong either. Take the extra minute or two to verify information. Don’t rely on other media – they also can make mistakes and the last thing you want to do is tell you editor well CNN said it happened, so …. (By the way, this is one area where social media is a boon to reporter as many things can be verified from official sources who will post to their Twitter or Facebook feed. But, again, don’t be lazy and just assume it’s right. Take a moment to verify, if you are lucky you may find what you are looking for this way.)

When you are under the gun and your editor is waiting, here are some things I suggest you try:

*      Buy some time: Tell your editor you are nearly done, but working to verify one or two things and then tell him or her how much time you realistically – and I can’t stress this enough – need to complete your story. Don’t tell your editor you have one fact to check it’ll take just five minutes and then turn in your story an hour later. Five minutes is five minutes and people are counting on you.

*      Enlist help: Many editors will be happy to pitch in and help – or find a reporter who is freed up and can help – if they know there’s an issue. So if you story hinges on getting the most updated figures from the office of emergency management, and you’re standing around wasting time waiting for a press conference when you should be writing – see if someone else can corral that info for you.

*     Divide and Conquer: Your editor wants the story ASAP. Your source, who is on the scene, has just put you on hold has one more bit of hard news for you for the story. What do you do? Do you hang up? Ignore your editor? Neither … assuming you have a good report with your editor you send them the story as it stands at the moment and let them know you will be adding in missing info shortly. Especially if your story is for an online audience, you will be able to update it once you get your info. If it’s for a print outlet, this will let your editor start working on the story so as not to delay the editorial process.

Breaking news does take a lot of concentration and hard work. There is no room for errors or miscalculations, but for reporters it can be an extremely important part of their repertoire.

I would love to hear how other people handle breaking news stories, so please leave your comments below. 


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