Chapter Nine: Speeches
George Allen speech

Journalists covering speeches, like this one by then-U.S. Sen. George Allen opening a military center, may choose to shift the story’s focus from the speaker’s primary topic. The Roanoke Times/used by permission



           In chapters One through Eight you were introduced to the process of writing, to basic reporting and judgmental skills every reporter needs to know, and to sources and responsibly handling the information and quotes they give us. In the remaining chapters you will continue to practice all those skills by applying them to particular types of reporting and stories. As you encounter each new challenge, remember your impact, elements, words process, and the ethical dimensions of every decision a journalist makes.


Why cover speeches?

           News media cover speeches for one of three reasons, usually. The first is that the speaker’s topic carries some potential impact for an audience. The second is that the presence of the speaker locally carries some impact. For example, we would cover a speech the President of the United States gave in Valleydale even if he talked about making yogurt. A presidential appearance in Valleydale carries emotional impact no matter what the reason is for his visit. People will tell their grandchildren about it in 50 years, over and over and over again (if you don’t believe me, ask the grandchildren). The third reason is the most common. It is a combination of the other two: The advertised topic carries potential impact for readers, listeners or viewers, and the speaker has some expertise or notoriety associated with the subject.

           That doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker will be lucid or well-organized.  Some speakers can’t use plain English; others get the heebie-jeebies in front of a crowd. Still others can’t organize their thoughts in a coherent fashion. As with all events or issues, that leaves the reporter with some decisions to make: How much of what the live audience saw should the audience for the story see, read or hear?


Putting your audience there, or not

           It’s the reporter’s job to make sense of the speech for members of an audience who couldn’t be there – your readers, viewers and listeners. The task is made even more fun by the fact that many speeches are scheduled at night, close to a reporter’s deadlines, because that’s when most people can attend.

           On some cable channels, such as C-SPAN, speeches and lectures are frequently broadcast in their entirety, though not often live. Some websites stream video of speeches as well, though again the webcast is seldom live. It’s rare for a major network or network affiliate station to broadcast an entire speech, except for presidential addresses. It is even rarer for a newspaper to publish a full transcript. About the only exception for newspapers is the president’s State of the Union Message. Even in that case, only a few daily newspapers will carry the full speech in addition to stories about it.

           So the reporter usually must summarize the speech for the mass audience, making no attempt to include everything the live audience heard. Keep in mind that, often, much of a speech will address the relatively narrow interests of the people who chose to attend. Its appeal for a mass audience is up to you to find and show. As a result, speech stories – whether broadcast or print – are invariably much shorter than the speech itself. As with every other story, then, focusing on the impact of a speech becomes essential.


Your judgment, or the speaker’s?

           Remember that your first job as a reporter is to keep your audience in mind. Your own political, ideological or emotional response to what the speaker says doesn’t count. Hold on to your sense of professionalism, your obligation to serve your audience. What does the speaker say that will carry impact for your audience? Often, that information doesn’t come early in the speech; sometimes we don’t hear it until the question-and-answer period. Just as you have an obligation to change the focus of a news release to reflect what’s most important to your audience, in a speech story you have a similar obligation to make sure your focus is appropriate for your audience. The speaker might emphasize something of interest to his or her live audience; something of tangential interest or importance to that audience might carry the most impact for a mass news audience. News stories are well-focused accounts; there’s no reason to make a reading or viewing audience sit through everything the live audience had to while waiting to hear the comments that carry the most significance. That’s true whether you’re developing the story for print, broadcast or the Web. Whether you’re writing quotes down or taping them, you’ll build your story around the most significant thing that was said.


Finding the impact

           So how do you go about making sure you serve your news audience well? First, remember that the most important thing the speaker said isn’t usually the first thing. Even if you decide that your focus will be the same as the speaker’s primary focus, be careful not to write a dull lede. (See Box 9.1) A speaker’s theme or topic statement can be a terrible guide for a reporter:

           Speaker: Tonight I would like to turn my attention to the United States’ foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East.

           In this case, the topic sentence tells the audience what the speaker will talk about. Your job is to show your audience what the speaker said. So your lede should be something like:

           The Obama administration’s policies in Iraq have failed and will continue to fail, Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told an audience at Southern Military Academy last night. 



Box 9.1 What’s This Speech  About?

           Be careful of fashioning your story’s lede from a speaker’s theme or topic statement. It can be a terrible guide for a reporter:

Speaker’s topic statement: Tonight I would like to turn my attention to the United States’ foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East.

Weak lede: Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney spoke to an audience at Southern Military Academy last night about the United States’ foreign policy in the Middle East.

Stronger lede: The Obama administration’s policies in Iraq have failed and will continue to fail, Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told an audience at Southern Military Academy last night.           


           If the most significant comment was not the speaker’s theme, or if it came in answer to a question afterward, lede with it, then put it in context with a statement like this:

           Jones’ comments about Clinton came near the end of a speech to a cosmetics industry trade association about a new product line.


           Baker’s characterization of Reagan was in response to a question after he had spoken for an hour to a farmers’ group about federal price subsidies.

           Second, as with any story, do your homework. The more background you can gather about the speaker and his or her topic beforehand the better your story will be. Doing your homework might also give you the opportunity to write part of your story ahead of time if you know you will be facing a tight deadline.  Biographical information about the speaker, why he or she has been prominent lately, and how he or she came to be in town is not likely to change based on what you hear in the speech. Write that first, incorporating file tape into your package if you’re working for broadcast; you can write your lede and the meat of your story about the speech itself after it happens. Sometimes speakers will release advance copies of their speeches, which can be extremely helpful. But follow closely as the speaker delivers it; off-the-cuff remarks can be frequent and are often more engaging than the prepared remarks. Former President Ronald Reagan’s handlers lived in mortal fear that he would depart from his prepared text, and he often did. One of his most famous – or notorious – ad libs was that trees cause pollution.

           Third, resist the temptation to use a quote for your lede. Even in speech stories, ledes that consist of quotations — or sound bites – usually don’t work. That’s because quotes usually don’t provide enough context for themselves. It’s better to paraphrase the most significant thing the speaker said in the lede, then look for a supporting quote, close paraphrase, or sound bite to support that lede. Nut grafs are important in speech stories to provide the context we discussed earlier. If you’re working on a broadcast story, that probably will take the form of a voice-over.

           Not: “This approach has my full support. I think it will settle the matter once and for all.”

           That was how Valleydale Mayor Delmer Hostetter expressed his public confidence Tuesday in a plan to have the city’s Finance Committee investigate allegations against City Manager Don Prentice.

            Instead, try: Mayor Delmer Hostetter says he supports a Finance Committee investigation of allegations against Valleydale City Manager Don Prentice.

           “I think it will settle the matter once and for all,” Hostetter told a Rotary Club meeting Tuesday.

           In the first example, a fairly strong quote carries immediate impact only for those  of us who already know what the story is about. Practically no one in your audience does.

           So rather than begin with a quote, use a strong lede to show your audience the impact. Then try to find your best quote to support and illustrate your lede in the second paragraph.


The body of the story


           Bullets are a device print and online reporters often find useful in writing speech stories. Often, you will recognize one theme that you will emphasize, but the speaker will touch on several other topics as well. When those topics are less important than your first choice but about equal to each other, use bullets to introduce them a couple of grafs (paragraphs) below the lede. You can then flesh them out one by one later after you’ve finished with the main emphasis of the story. (In broadcast stories, don’t try to use a sound bite for the bullet itself. It gets cumbersome, for you and your audience.)

           A bullet graf would look like this:

           While Iraq’s arsenal was foremost in the President’s mind, he took time to score a few political points. He advocated:

            * A constitutional amendment ensuring health-care coverage for all Americans. 

            * A federal hands-off policy on state laws regulating gay marriage.

            * Mandatory college courses in drug abuse prevention.

            * Immediate Congressional action to fix what he called mistakes in the No Child Left Behind law, his predecessor’s principal public education initiative.

           Notice that bullets should be set up so that, combined with the single introductory clause, each one forms a complete sentence. Limit bullet items to one or two short sentences. Remember, your intention is merely to introduce them near the lede. You can elaborate on them in turn lower in the story. For broadcast stories, that’s the place to work in the sound bite if you have it.  If you have fewer than three bullet items, treat them in narrative form, not as bullets. If you have more than six, the bullet format gets unwieldy.

The speaker’s delivery and the audience’s response

           Always notice the speaker’s delivery — polished, awkward, rambling, stilted, conversational – and the audience’s response. But include them in your narrative only if you think either is significant. Occasionally the audience’s response becomes the focus of the story, if it is particularly strident or animated. Conversely, if the speaker put everybody to sleep, your audience should know that. Note the size of the audience as well, but keep in mind that it’s usually not worth dwelling on.


           Speech stories make more use of direct quotes than many other kinds of stories, but you should still use quotes judiciously. Even in a speech story, most of what you write should be in paraphrase, or, in the case of a broadcast story, voice-over. Avoid partial quotes; as you learn to take notes, you will get the hang of getting whole-sentence quotes. As with interviewing, tape recorders often aren’t much help on deadline if you’re working for print. It takes you too long to transcribe quotes from them. For broadcast stories, shoot a lot of tape or record the entire speech, but discipline yourself to use just one or two bites.                                          


News facts

           Remember to check assertions a speaker makes if you can. In Chapter Eight you learned the concept of a news fact, and how it might differ from the truth. But remember that the news fact of a speaker saying something might be so compelling that it bears reporting, even when the truth of the statement can’t be verified. When you have to make that decision, remember to put the comment in that context in your story:

           Baker offered no proof or substantiation for his assertion.  A legislative inquiry three months ago cleared Thompson of any involvement.

           You can see again why doing your homework beforehand can be critical.



           There is a difference between changing the focus of your story to serve the needs of your audience and misrepresenting what a speaker says. You should be able to give clear, compelling ethical arguments for deciding on a different focus than the speaker’s in your story, based on the impact for the mass audience you serve. In an example from above, a speech about farm subsidies by a former member of President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet will carry little immediate impact for a mass audience. But personal insights into Reagan by someone who was close to him would. A speaker might not be happy with such a decision by a journalist, but the decision is ethically defensible.

           What is not ethically defensible is misrepresentation – misquoting a speaker or taking his or her remarks out of context. If, to use another example above, the quote from Mayor Hostetter: “I  think it will settle the matter once and for all,” was not about the Finance Committee’s investigation but about a vote against raising property taxes, we have misrepresented what Hostetter said, even if  the quote itself is accurate.



           Let’s summarize key strategies for finding the impact from speeches and writing compelling stories from them (See Box 9.2):

           1. Do your homework.  As with any story, the more background you can gather about the speaker and his or her topic beforehand, the better your story will be. If you will be covering a speech on deadline, you can often use the background to write part of your story in advance. That will save time later.

           2. Remember that the most important thing the speaker said isn’t usually the first thing.  For example, a lot of speakers warm their audiences up with a joke. You wouldn’t lede with that. In deciding what to focus on, be professional. Serve your audience, not your own political or ideological agenda.

          3. Even in speech stories, ledes that consist of quotations — or sound bites — often don’t work.  That’s because quotes usually don’t provide enough context for themselves.  Paraphrase the most significant thing the speaker said in the lede, then look for a supporting quote.

          4. Use bullets to encapsulate important points that are separate from the focus of your story.  Introduce them a couple of grafs below the lede. You can then flesh them out one by one later.

          5. Notice the speaker’s delivery and the audience’s reaction. But include them in the story only if you think they help show the story’s impact.

          6. Use quotes sparingly. Even in a speech story, most of what you write should be in paraphrase. As with other stories, save quotes for the most compelling stuff. Avoid partial quotes.

          7. Treat a speaker’s unsupported assertions carefully. Check them out if you can. But remember that the “news fact” of a speaker saying something may be so compelling that it bears reporting. In that case, remind your audience that the statement could not be verified.



Box 9.2 Strategies for Writing Speech Stories

1. Be prepared.The more you know going in, the better your story will be. Using the background you gather, try to write part of your story ahead of time.

2. Don’t lede with the first thing the speaker says. Usually, that’s “I’m delighted to be here tonight,” or “Being in front of this audience reminds me of a joke….”

3. Avoid quote ledes.Quotes don’t provide enough context for themselves. You will be the only one who understands the significance of the quote.

4. Use bullets to summarize a speaker’s secondary topics.Place your “bullet graf” a couple of grafs below the lede. You can flesh each bullet item out one by one later.

5. Include the speaker’s style of delivery or the audience’s reaction only if they contribute to the story’s impact.

6. Be stingy with quotes. Even though the speech consists entirely of quotes, use only the best you have for your story.

7. Watch for unsupported assertions. If you can’t check them for accuracy, remind your audience that the statement could not be verified.          


Exercise Nine: Speech

           In class, you might be given a choice of speeches to cover, either on campus or in your community. Write a story about the speech you attend. Alternatively, write a newspaper story based on the speech below. Then write it as a RDR for broadcast of no more than 30 seconds.

           What follows is Mayor Hostetter’s annual State of the City Address, in which the mayor is required to identify issues he deems important to the city in the coming year. As with presidential State of the Union addresses, they often include boosterism and political point-making.

          Here is some background on the courthouse agreement Hostetter refers to: Merchants and some other city residents see a new downtown courthouse as a magnet for local businesses. Fearing a loss of potential shoppers downtown, they opposed initial plans by the county to replace the current inadequate downtown courthouse with one outside the city. The City Council approved a tentative agreement to share the cost of a new downtown courthouse with the county.

Mayor Hostetter’s Address:

           Ladies and Gentlemen:

           When we were elected to this job four years ago, the city was at a crossroads. Well, we’re still at a crossroads – U.S. 50 and Route 15 still intersect right in the middle of town. But seriously, from time to time I like to advise the City Council and the citizens of Valleydale periodically on what I see as the condition of our city, its financial health, its problems, its key issues.

           Let me start by saying that Valleydale is still the best place in the United States to live, bar none. Our elementary and middle schools rank near the top of the heap in the whole state. The physical beauty of our city frequently attracts filmmakers and TV producers. Retirees are flocking to the area. Our citizens are engaged and committed to community service.

           But I would be lying if I said everything is hunky-dory. As a city we face daunting challenges in the years ahead. Foremost among them is how to effectively balance a reasonable tax burden against increasing demands for services and sources of state revenue that are drying up. By the way, I want to take this opportunity, since we’re talking about the city budget, to give my personal vote of confidence to our city manager. Mr. Prentice is one of the most effective public servants I have ever seen, and he has withstood recent unfounded attacks upon his professionalism and character with good grace.  I look forward to his being exonerated of all these scurrilous and groundless accusations.

           In the longer term, though, Don and his staff face a tough job. Our aging population will need better and expanded services – health care, public safety and emergency services. But many are on fixed incomes, so property taxes will have to remain low. The key, I think, is to look for other sources of revenue. Our ever-growing tourism industry should shoulder a large share of the burden. That’s why I am calling for a 2-cent increase in the sales tax on restaurant food and hotel and motel rooms. It would raise, I project, another $400,000 annually.

          I conclude my remarks with an observation about public service – no, wait, before I do that, I want to mention my opposition to the planned new courthouse in the downtown area. I know we have tentatively agreed with the county on financing the thing, but I am going to do my best to see that that project dies. We should back out of that agreement. It was stupid. If the county wants a new courthouse, it can build it somewhere else, and not with city taxpayers’ money.  What we really need downtown is a multistory parking garage, and every merchant in town would agree with me on that. For $11 million, we could build it right where the municipal lot is now on Roosevelt Street across from Dominick’s Pizza. I am going to fight for that, even if we have to raise property taxes to do it.

           There is no doubt about it, Valleydale is a city whose future is ahead of it. Thank you.



One thought on “Chapter Nine: Speeches

  1. Very informative. It helped me a lot. Thank you for this!

    Posted by paulynnedelacruz | January 16, 2016, 1:11 pm

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