Why you should care
Because some leads you should bury. Six feet under.
Timothy Gillespie was on deadline and nothing was working. That’s when the reporter, 33, decided to join the legions of writers latching on to an increasingly common means of starting a news story. Who the f*ck is Timothy Gillespie!? That’s what you’re thinking, right? Either that or you’ve already skipped to the next paragraph to find out what this article is really about.
The anecdotal lead — that little vignette at the top of an article meant to illustrate its larger point and/or showcase its human side — is really the journalistic equivalent of casual sex. Sure, it’s natural to want some human contact when it comes to our universal desire for news and knowledge, but once you’ve hopped into the narrative sack with several strangers in a row as you peruse the day’s stories, it can start to feel rather empty and unfulfilling. So why do reporters insist on routinely pimping out their opening paragraphs?
The complaint generally takes the form of: ‘Just tell me the news.’
Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times
Practically every journalist in print or television does it, including yours truly. But it did not always feel like every story did it. Only a few decades ago did The Wall Street Journal popularize the practice. Today, however, the anecdotal lead too often seems the “default” alternative to a straight-news lead, according to Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times. He calls its subject “the stranger in the first paragraph” and worries the proliferation of such strangers alienates readers, making them “impatient, even scornful” of the device: “The complaint generally takes the form of: ‘Just tell me the news,’” Corbett says.
Impatience is understandable. We live in an increasingly digital news age, one where wading through a two- or three-paragraph anecdote can feel interminable to a reader who wants information more than relatable characters. But, putting shorter digital attentions spans aside, how often would you actually invoke the case of a faceless stranger in sharing a story with a friend in person? Close to never, I’d guess.
But it’s also not hard to understand why the device is popular among writers. Writers love to show they can write, and in a competitive market, they face constant pressure to make their stories distinctive. And when done well, the anecdotal lead is powerful. It can make complicated subjects accessible and engage readers on topics they would not otherwise contemplate. Such intros “have a great place for drawing attention to issues and driving home the human side of public problems,” according to David Craig, a journalism professor at Oklahoma University and author of The Ethics of the Story: Using Narrative Techniques Responsibly in Journalism. But Craig also cautions that “in the attempt to humanize, the writer can distort the broader issue” by choosing an extreme example, one that might oversimplify the story or display political or other bias.
So what can we pixel-stained wretches do to make amends? Deploy anecdotal openings more sparingly for starters. There are countless alternatives to straight-news leads that do not involve an anecdote, says Corbett, such as the provocative one-sentence openings recently used here and here in The New York Times. They can also try shorter, punchier anecdotes, ones that draw the reader in with a single sentence or paragraph to start before returning to the rest of the story later.
And what became, then, of poor Timothy Gillespie? He served his narrative function and lived happily ever after. As far as we know.
Should more journalists bury some of their anecdotal leads? Tell it to us straight below.