One Piece of News, Three Leads: Who Wrote It Best?

By Mike Feinsilber

On Monday reporters at the Wall Street Journal,  Washington Post and New York Times wrote stories dealing with the same piece of news. Medical experiments in Spain had concluded from a five-year study that a Mediterranean diet—heavy on olive oils, nuts, fish, vegetable and fruits—could prevent heart attacks, strokes and death. Each writer had the same information but was free to do his own reporting by talking to experts and skeptics.

Let’s compare their leads—the first paragraph, whose function is to summarize the news in a way that would invite readers to read on.

Lead A: A diet common in coastal areas of Southern Europe, particularly one with lots of olive oil and nuts, cuts the risk of stroke and other major cardiovascular problems by 30% among high-risk people, according to a new study. (39 words, 3 commas)

Lead B: The “Mediterranean diet,” featuring vegetable, fruits, fish, nuts, and olive oil but almost no red meat or sweets, slightly reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Most of the effect was seen in a reduction in strokes. (36 words, 4 commas,  2 sentences)

Lead C:  About 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables, and even drink wine with meals, a large and rigorous new study has found. (52 words, 7 commas)

I’ll tell which lead appeared where, but first let’s put these leads under analysis.  Which lead conveys the most news? Which best lures the reader into the story? Which is the most interesting?

For my money, Lead C, which appeared in the New York Times, wins. It violates the old journalism edict that says readers lose comprehension quick and leads should be trim.  In a textbook, News Reporting and Writing, which claims to have taught journalism to more than a quarter of a million students, author Melvin Mechner lays down the dictum. The lead, he says, “should not exceed 35 words.”

Times writer Gina Kolata, ignoring the Mechner rule, has given us a readable lead, packed with specifics. More than 30 percent of common heart problems can be prevented; just eat “olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruit and vegetables.” She is willing to squander five words on a humane touch:  the eaters can “even drink wine with meals.”  She suggests an answer to the readers’ eternal question: Says who? A “large and rigorous new study” says so.

Lead B, from the Washington Post, strikes me as the least successful. Word four is journalism’s old, lifeless chestnut: “featuring.” Kolata’s 30 percent reduction comes out in the Post as a slight reduction. Kolata’s specifics—“heart attacks, strokes and deaths”—goes through the blender and comes out “cardiovascular disease.”  In place of an answer to the “says who” question, we get the passive voice — Most of the effect “was seen.” No suggestion of the reporter’s source.  Not much pizazz.

Lead A, the Wall Street Journal’s, is middle-of-the-roadish. We learn where this diet is eaten, the coastal areas of Southern Europe, but for some reason strokes gets their own mention as part of “other major cardiovascular problems.” The writer gives us the specific “30 percent.” The “particularly” before oil and nuts mystifies; it is a word that can go away at no loss. And the Times’ “large and rigorous new study” gets ground down to “a new study.”

This has nothing to do with the  lead, but the Journal’s headline writer did the story no favor: “Olive Oil Diet Curbs  Strokes,” it reads, making it sound like some quack diet.

What’s to be learned?

Needless words (“particularly”) need curtailing. Tired words (“featuring”) need retirement.  Hard specifics triumph over generalities. Rules can be broken by a writer who knows what she’s doing. And a humane touch, a wink to the guy who wants his glass of wine with dinner, keeps ‘em reading.


  1. I haven’t read the study closely, but I wonder if WaPo’s lead was “truer” than the other 2 … maybe the 30 percent number was questionable.

Speak Your Mind