Thursday, September 01, 2005

Backing up the lede

One of the basic things I was taught by a lot of editors wiser than I -- and that I still teach today -- is that what you put in the lede must be backed up in the story. Otherwise you leave the reader feeling at best unfulfilled and at worst cheated.

Unfortunately, I have a file full of cases where that isn't happening. It's worth repeating: If you are a copy editor, make sure the lede is backed up.

The latest is a story from the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, S.C., today about soaring gas prices:

Gas prices soared above $4 per gallon in South Carolina for the first time ever Wednesday, and panicked motorists waited in long lines as supplies ran short in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Now, as a reader, I want to know where this $4 place is. My curiosity is piqued. (Fortunately, I do know, because my son, who goes to school in Clinton, S.C., told me it was there.) But I have looked at this article three or four times and see nothing to back up this lede. (Later' there's the sweeping statement that some prices have topped $3, but again no backup. The only prices quoted are $2.59 and $2.99.) The effect is to send the reader away wondering.

Contrast that with Spartanburg's competing paper, the Greenville News:

Experts are advising Upstate drivers not to panic over gasoline supplies after a day in which they reacted to sharply higher prices with a fueling frenzy that drained some filling stations and brought back lines reminiscent of the 1970s.

Binge buying Wednesday exacerbated supply-line problems caused by Hurricane Katrina and helped push pump prices above $3 per gallon for regular unleaded at many retailers. One Upstate station -- the Pik-N-Go in Clinton -- was charging as much as $4.79 for a gallon of unleaded regular.

It's not in the lede, but right there in the second graf is the "Hey, can you believe this" information that both satisfies me and is likely to make me point out the story to someone else. (For that effort, I'll let them get by with an "exacerbated.")

In fairness, let me point out that Spartanburg is generally an excellently edited paper and that I've used a couple of Greenville problem examples in class. It's one of those things that all copy editors should be vigilant about.

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