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How To Cover Debates

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How To Cover Debates

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain debate.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Take Great Notes

Sounds like an obvious point, but debates are long (and often longwinded), so you don’t want to risk missing anything by assuming you can commit things to memory. Get everything down on paper, and in your notes put checkmarks next to quotes or moments in the debate that you think you’ll use in your story.

Write The Background Copy Ahead of Time

Debates are often held at night, which means stories must be written on very tight deadlines. So have some background copy – also called B-Copy – written up before the debate begins. This can include basic information on the candidates, the state of the election and their campaigns, etc. The b-copy will fill out the bottom of the story, while the debate itself will be the top.

Write As You Go

If you wait until the debate ends to start writing your story, you’re bound to miss your deadline. So once you have a feel for how the debate is going, start writing. You may not know what your lede will be until the event ends, but at least you’ll have the bulk of your story ready to go.

Watch For Trends

Think of the debate as a game and yourself as a sportswriter. Does one side come out punching while the other holds back? Does one side take an early lead, only to squander it at the finish? Picking out trends like these as the debate goes on will help you write your lede.

Don’t Worry About Chronology

Don’t feel obligated to cover a debate in the order in which it unfolds. Follow the rule of all good news writing: Put the good stuff at the top of the story, the less-good stuff at the bottom. If a particularly interesting or provocative exchange occurs in the last five minutes of the debate, there’s nothing wrong with making that your lede.

Find Your Lede

Generally, your lede should sum up the debate’s main points. Here’s an example of this type of lede from Adam Nagourney of The New York Times:

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama debated for 90 minutes on Tuesday night before a nation in economic crisis, each promising anxious Americans that he had the better plan and vision to lead the country through what both men said was the most dire financial situation since the Great Depression.

But there are other approaches. You might focus, for example, on the demeanor of the debaters themselves, as Patrick Healy of The Times does here:

Gov. Sarah Palin used a steady grin, folksy manner and carefully scripted talking points to punch politely and persist politically at the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night, turning in a performance that her rival, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., sought to undermine with cordially delivered but pointed criticism.

Another approach might be to zero in on a dramatic moment, such as an especially angry exchange between the debaters, as in this made-up example:

Mayor John Smith and challenger John Jones nearly came to blows and had to be pulled apart by police in their debate Tuesday night after Jones suggested that Smith had stolen money from the city treasury.

And of course, if something genuinely newsworthy happens during the debate, that should obviously be your lede:

Mayor John Smith stunned Centerville residents Tuesday night when, at the start of a scheduled debate with challenger John Jones, he announced he would not run for re-election after all.

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