Learning Leads from Nursery Rhymes

Article excerpt

JOURNALISTS COULD LEARN a lot about lead-writing from nursery rhymes, which specialize in bright, natural beginnings. The tortured syntax of formula journalism - the habit, say, of beginning with a clause that delays the lead's true business - is not for nursery rhymes.

A lead's "true business" is usually revealed by a straightforward presentation of actor, action and acted upon. That means Jack and Jill went up the hill to get a pail of water. It means little Jack Horner sat in the corner eating a Christmas pie. It means little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and can't tell where to find them.

What is the "true business" of the following lead?

Probing an urban legend from their Staten Island childhood - that of Cropsey, a maniacal child killer and escapee from the nearby Willowbrook mental institution - documentary filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio expand the story to include the real disappearances of children, the hunt for (and trials of) a suspect, and the exposes of the horrific conditions of Willowbrook, which made big news in 1972 via the investigative reporting of a young Geraldo Rivera.

Must we sift through the wreckage of this sentence? It's enough to say that it begins with a rudderless verb and anchorless phrase, interrupts its own uncertain flow with bewildering allusions to a maniac and an insane asylum, and at last introduces the lead's subjects, filmmakers Zeman and Brancaccio. But wait! The sentence is hardly over. We now slosh through the flotsam and jetsam of missing children, a search for a suspect, the suspect's trials, expos?s of horrifie conditions and - gasp! - the investigative reporting of a "young Geraldo Rivera!"

Really?

The lead's true business? I'd guess it's something like:

Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio's latest documentary expands on an urban legend from the filmmakers' Staten Island childhood.

Here's another news lead that goes adrift:

Bowing to pressure from the Obama administration, the White House and BP on Wednesday agreed to create an independent $20 billion fund to pay claims arising from the worst oil spill in U. S history, suspend paying shareholder dividends for the rest of the year and compensate oil field workers for lost wages.

That "bowing to pressure" phrase demonstrates further hazards of "backing in" to the lead. Not only does it delay the subject (the White House and BP), but in this case that subject is wrong. The White House did not "bow to pressure" from the Obama administration; how would that work? Nor did the White House create a fund or act jointly with BP to suspend shareholder dividends and compensate oil field workers. …