News

Please just give us the news and spare us the anecdotal lead

I am sick to death of the anecdotal lead, that annoying habit of news writers to start a straightforward story by painting a quaint little picture of everyday life.

If the story is about a bill requiring pet owners to spay or neuter their dogs (just to pick an imaginary example), the anecdotal lead first tells us how much Janey Johnson loves Missy, her cocker spaniel.

No doubt Janey and Missy are a lovely pair, but a lot of us have jobs and kids and commutes and precious little time to muse about Missy’s reproductive potential.

Of course there is such a thing as a great anecdotal lead, a picture so compelling it sticks with you like great fiction. But most of them just waste your time and make you hunt for the point of the story.

Not only is the typical example time-consuming and boring, it represents a basic misunderstanding of the main motivator for reading newspapers in the first place.

Fear, not curiosity, is the primary reason we read newspapers, according to my great mentor and friend the late John Peters, who devoted a lifetime to journalism in big papers and small. John got to pore over lots of reader surveys during his time with McClatchy, and even more after he retired, during a second career as a consultant and visionary-for-hire for struggling papers around the state.

People read papers for a lot of reasons, he said, but the fundamental one is the fear of looking stupid for not knowing what’s going on. And that makes the anecdotal lead all the more pointless and vexing: If we’re just trying to gather enough facts to hold our heads high in the workplace, we want those facts as quickly as we can get them, not tucked away under a haze of analogy.

In the classic British political sitcom “Yes, Prime Minister,” a frustrated bureaucratic operative asks a top bank official why he isn’t aware of the latest crisis.

“You read the Financial Times, don’t you?” the bureaucrat demands.

“No,” says the banker.

“But, it’s there, tucked under your arm!”

“Yes, but I don’t read the bloody thing, it’s just part of the uniform.”

That’s the way a lot of papers are treated in the Capitol. They sit on counters and tables in reception areas, big piles of them, unmolested, undisturbed, unread, only to be replaced the next day by a new pile, more current events diorama than genuine info hub.

Of course, there is a lot of reading going on. Lawmakers are keenly aware of the top issues in the paper. They react strongly to news stories and editorials alike. A friend of mine once sought a press secretary job for a legislator who said if he couldn’t find three bill ideas in every issue of the New York Times, he just wasn’t looking. That’s probably true, but I doubt many of those ideas come from that overused trick of the trade called the anecdotal lead.


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