How To Cover Speeches
Covering a speech is a typical assignment for journalists. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not too tricky. But many young journalists initially struggle with speech stories. Too often they fail to explain to readers why the speech matters or what was newsworthy about it. Instead of focusing on who said what, they focus on dull details.
For example, many a college newspaper article has begun with a topical lead like: “On May 17, Gen. Norman Johnson addressed students at Stansbury University. The event was held in the Performing Arts Center at 3 p.m. It was sponsored by the Student Affairs Office.” Approaches like that are boring because they don’t explain to the reader why they should care about the story. A better approach would be something along the lines of: “Openly homosexual soldiers should be allowed to serve in the military, a high-ranking U.S. Army leader said Monday. ‘A soldier’s sexual preference has nothing to do with his ability to serve and protect the nation,’ Gen. Norman Johnson, under secretary of the U.S. Army, told an audience of approximately 300 students and faculty at Stansbury University.”
Below are some general tips for covering speeches along with a suggested story format. An optional speech assignment is at the bottom.
Advice on Covering Speeches
Research the topic and speaker. Ask the organizers for a speaker’s bio or look him up on the Web ahead of time. Get background info on the topic, look at articles previously written on it. And see if you can either get a copy of the speech ahead of time or at least talk to the speaker in advance to get a feel for what the speech will cover. This way you can write a skeleton outline ahead of time and fill in the details during the speech. Of course, you may learn of the speech so close to deadline that this may not be possible.
Arrive early and find a good seat. Place may fill. Don’t want to be late and miss part of speech. May not be allowed in after starts. Sit where you can hear well.
Bring the right materials. Notebook, pen, recorder, perhaps a camera or videocamera. Take notes as if recorder doesn’t exist. But recorder is good to capture precise language – speaker may say something controversial or other media may be there and you want quotes that are consistent with theirs.
Estimate crowd size. Or ask organizers for a head count. If their number seems way off, you may want to mention that.
Don’t summarize entire speech. Most speeches are boring and really only deliver one message. So, don’t try to cover every point the speaker makes. Focus on the most important stuff. That’s what the reader wants to know. If s/he wanted to hear the whole speech, she would have attended or watched on TV.
Listen for the take-away moment. Many speeches have a pivotal moment that defines them. Maybe speaker says something controversial or suggests an unusual plan of action. If audience has a strong reaction to something said, chances are that’s the takeaway moment. The take away moment is what you should lead with, and go into more detail about later in your story.
Stay after. Don’t leave immediately after speech, unless you need to cover another event or get back to the newsroom to make a fast-approaching deadline. Ask audience members for their reactions. If there’s a reception, go to it and talk to people there. Try to grab the speaker and ask follow-up questions or clarify points he made, if possible. This way you can ensure you understood what he was saying. Don’t be timid in asking tough questions.
Balance your story. People often make speeches in areas or places they are comfortable with, where they know they will be surrounded by their supporters. So, the audience’s reaction may be very partisan. Talk to other people affected by the speech, who may not be in attendance. If the College President, for example, mentions at an alumni reception that he is raising tuition, that won’t affect alumni. But it will affect students, who likely won’t be in attendance. Get reaction from students.
Writing the story. Reporters have two jobs: pass along the speaker’s message and also help readers examine that message. Keep in mind that what’s newsworthy may not be what the speaker thinks should be reported or the focus of your story. Or what’s newsworthy may not be what was said during the speech but what was not said. Or the news may be how the crowd reacted to what was said. What’s newsworthy may not even factor into the speech. The news may come after the speech, when the speaker is answering questions. If an answer provides the most interesting piece of news, lead with that. Do not include everything said in the speech, just the most important parts. Take good notes so you can use direct quotes in your story. Make sure all names and titles are correct. Write the story as soon as possible. Writing the story as soon as possible gets the information down more accurately.
Suggested Speech Story Structure
1) The lead: the most newsworthy point the speaker made. If the speaker is not well-known, such as a famous person, it’s probably best to use a delayed identification lead.
2) Second paragraph: powerful quote from speech to reinforce the lead.
3) Third paragraph: where, when, why the speech was given.
4) The rest of the story: combines quotes, descriptions, background information and audience reactions.
How to Screw Up a Speech Story
· Use the words addressed, or spoke to, or spoke on, or spoke about in the lead
· Back into the lead: In an address to the Garden City Rotary Club Thursday…
· Tell your readers what the speaker thinks or feels or believes instead of what he/she said
· Try to add liveliness to your story by characterizing what the speaker said or how strongly he or she felt it, instead of telling me what he said: Jones stressed the potential problems for societies that choose not to value the lives of the unborn.
Example of Speech Story
Speech Reporting Exercise
Instructions: In an hour or less, type up a story based on the following information in this newswriting exercise.
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