Posted by: rcieri | September 29, 2008

An Analysis of Deadline Writing

Sept. 29, 2008
By Rachel Cieri

According to Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan, the authors of “America’s Best Newspaper Writing,” writing for a deadline is an art that requires a journalist to develop a single process of planning, thinking, drafting, reporting and writing. In the space of only a few hours, the writer must process a multitude of facts and details to piece together a story that is not only coherent but compelling, interesting and easy to read. Some writers struggle, but a few have finely tuned their skills to create timeless and compelling writing on a deadline.

Tragedy on the Rails; Chain-Reaction Crash Kills 11
By David Pierson and Mitchell Landsberg

“Tragedy on the Rails,” demonstrated the ability of a team of reporters to both get important facts and write a detailed, descriptive story. The sheer number and breadth of interviews done in the short period of time between the crash and publication of the story was impressive. The reporters talked to eyewitnesses, crash survivors, officials from the police department and transportation services. The only interviews missing from this account are those with family members awaiting news. This, however, may have been an intentional omission to respect those in grieving. The interviews with the many different types of people gives the story a well-rounded set of information.

The interviews with survivors help to give the reader a sense that the story happened to real people rather than a nameless crowd. Descriptions of the injured directly from the mouths of eyewitnesses add to that sense of personalization, showing the horror of the situation for those directly involved. The account of the crash from a passenger made the scene even more real for readers, putting them inside the train at the crash.

Specific details especially strengthened the story, including the account of an injured man’s message to his family written in blood on a piece of metal. The detailed description of the damage to the train helps make the scene real to readers who may have been desensitized to carnage from other images in the media. It also helps to illuminate the complexity of the crash, allowing readers to understand exactly how it happened. The account of one passenger’s personal safety plan that apparently worked gives readers something to think about, and it helped to personalize the faceless event.

The story’s lead is not especially powerful, but it did not need to be because it was the top story in the area at the time. It was easy to follow and provided useful information in the shortest possible period of time, making it an extremely successful example of deadline reporting.

Jury sends Santa Claus killer to electric chair
By Leonora LaPeter

LaPeter did not have time to break down the events of the courtroom into a complex analysis, so she told the story the way it happened, putting it into a narrative. The lead painted the scene of the climax of the trial – the sentencing – and was followed by a nut graph, explaining the rest from there.   As Clark and Scanlan pointed out in their analysis, the quotes LaPeter chooses feel more like dialogue in the context of the story. The quotes she chooses speak for themselves and need little explanation. They help to move the story progress by providing transitions as well as explanation.

In the short duration of the prose, LaPeter brings the reader closer to how both sides of the trial are feeling. She includes some of their most powerful statements in court, and she paraphrases to succinctly include all of the testimony. She also did not bother to explain the details of the crime because by this time, these details would have been over-publicized.  LaPeter had an especially challenging task since court writers cannot speak directly with the jurors during the trial, but she captured their feelings through the jury foreman’s statement.  The biggest strength of the story was its ability to make procedural and fairly predictable event into a story.

Men of Steel are Melting with Age
By David Von Drehle

Von Drehle’s coverage of Richard Nixon’s funeral is a different sort of deadline writing than the type typically seen. Rather than an homage to Nixon’s life and work or an explanation of how he died, it was an account of the funeral itself, meaning that there were very few “facts” to glean. There was a noticeable lack of quotation, and the few quotes that Von Drehle did report were from speeches at the funeral. It seemed as though the interviews for this story were nonexistent and that all the reporting was done by simply observing. This technique was fitting, however, and allowed Von Drehle to collect copious detail, from the way aged officials looked to the weather that day. He even noted how the color of one’s lapel pin allowed access into different social circle.

At points, the story could be hard to follow. In the face of the deadline, it seemed that Von Drehle may have left out some key explanation. He may have relied on the reader’s prior knowledge to carry him or her through the story. A young audience with less knowledge of Nixon’s presidency would have a hard time understanding Von Drehle’s sarcastic referral to the “parking lot across the street from a strip mall,” or “’Chinatown’ tough.”

The major strength of the story and a recurring theme was the contrast between the past and the present. Von Drehle’s lead depicted national leaders of the 1960s as they were in their prime, and it was followed by a description of the way they were at the time the story was written. Their former confidence, strength and power is contrasted with their frailty. Even the mood of the funeral was played up in contrast, painting the feeling of a political rally before it took a turn to pure greif. It seems that Nixon took his entire administration with him in his death, and Von Drehle showed this in his conclusion.

Deadline writing is one of the most important skills that a reporter can have, since news is constantly being updated. These writers have mastered the art , and they have shown that a diversity of sources, as much information as possible, specific physical details and a narrative storyline are key to successful writing.


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