Covering speeches

Adapted from

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, undersecretary of the U.S. Army, told an audience of approximately 300 students an1d faculty at Stansbury University.”

Below are some general tips for covering speeches along with a suggested story format.

  • Research the topic (and speaker, if he or she is unfamilar). Get background info on topics discussed and  look at articles previously written on them.
  • Take notes, even if you have a recording. Recordings are good to capture precise language. The speaker may say something controversial or other media may be there and you want quotes that are consistent with theirs. But you also want notes that will help you organize what was important and separate it from what wasn’t.
  • Don’t summarize the entire speech. Most speeches are boring and really only deliver only a few main messages. Don’t try to cover every point the speaker makes. Focus on the most important stuff. That’s what the reader wants to know. Someone who wanted to hear the whole speech would have listened to it live.
  • Listen for the takeaway moment. Many speeches have a pivotal moment that defines them. Maybe the speaker says something controversial or suggests an unusual plan of action. If the audience has a strong reaction to something said, chances are that’s a takeaway moment. The key takeaway moment is what you should lead with and go into more detail about later in your story. (If covering a national speech for a local audience, you may want to view it in a lounge where people from your target audience are watching it so as to better gauge your specific audience’s reactions.
  • Writing the story. Reporters have two jobs: pass along the speaker’s message and 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, for projects other than our State of the Union exercise, the news may be how the crowd reacted to what was said. What’s newsworthy may not even factor into the speech. In coverage other than what we are doing with the State of the Union, 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.
  • For other in-person speeches, stay after. We won’t be doing this for the State of the Union assignment, but you might for other speeches. Don’t leave immediately after the speech. 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.
  • Except with the State of the Union project, 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. This is some of what we will be doing with our followup idea in the State of the Union project.


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 on Thursday…
  • Tell your readers what the speaker thinks or feels or believes instead of what he or 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.