Telling It Like It Is: “The most astonishing four paragraphs I’ve ever written.”

From a post on by Roy Peter Clark headlined “Telling it like it is: When writing news requires a distance from neutrality”:

One of my favorite songs by the great Aaron Neville is “Tell It Like It Is.” That could be the anthem of the moment for journalists, along with the lyrics, “Don’t be afraid, let your conscience be your guide.”

The song played in my head as I read a Washington Post story about the attack on the Capitol written by John Woodrow Cox, based on the work of a team of reporters. I have known Cox’s work from his days at the Tampa Bay Times.

In a tweet, Cox shared a four-paragraph lead about what some have called an “attempted coup.” He characterized that lead as “the most astonishing four paragraphs I’ve ever written.”

Here they are:

As President Trump told a sprawling crowd outside the White House that they should never accept defeat, hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in what amounted to an attempted coup that they hoped would overturn the election he lost. In the chaos, one woman was shot and killed by Capitol Police.

The violent scene — much of it incited by the president’s incendiary language — was like none other in modern American history, bringing to a sudden halt the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

With poles bearing blue Trump flags, the mob bashed through Capitol doors and windows, forcing their way past police officers unprepared for the onslaught. Lawmakers were evacuated shortly before an armed standoff at the House doors. The woman who was shot by a police officer was rushed to an ambulance, police said, and later died. Canisters of tear gas were fired across the rotunda’s white marble floor, and on the steps outside the building, rioters flew Confederate flags.

“USA!” chanted the would-be saboteurs of a 244-year-old democracy.

In linking to that story, Poynter media writer Tom Jones agreed with Cox, calling the lead “among the most astonishing four paragraphs I’ve ever read.”. . .

How he wrote it, in Cox’s own words

Roy Peter Clark: You tweeted that your lead was the most “astonishing” thing you had ever written. What astonished you?

John Woodrow Cox: The language that the moment demanded: “stormed the U.S. Capitol”; “attempted coup”; “violent scene… like none other in modern American history”; “armed standoff at the House chamber’s entrance.” This was a work of nonfiction, but here I was, writing those words. And they astonished me.

Clark: I see more than a dozen reporters credited. It seems that you played an old school journalism role — that of “rewrite” man or woman. In the old days, reporters would phone in the details and a designated writer would shape it into a story. How did it work in this case?

Cox: No one in journalism is better at managing major news events than Mike Semel, the Post’s Metro editor. I’ve seen him do it dozens of times, including week after week this summer as he oversaw coverage of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. With guidance from our protest expert, Marissa Lang, Mike deployed 18 reporters (by my count) into the field and assigned them where to go and when, along with instructions on what we were looking for and how to stay safe.

Our reporters sent in hundreds of feeds that day. Ideally, everyone files to me through Slack and I cherry-pick what I want to use, but because the cell service was so bad that day, we had some backup systems, the mechanics of which are beyond me, that allowed people to file other ways. . . .

Clark: With a firehose of information coming from so many reporters, how did you decide what to use in the lead?

Cox: I’d written quite a bit, pre-publication, when it suddenly became clear early in the afternoon that our story needed to focus on the Capitol riot, which meant I had to start from scratch. I’ve anchored maybe three dozen “ledealls,” as we call them, since I came to the Post, and my boss, Lynda Robinson, has edited nearly every one. We’ve developed a great rhythm, often under intense pressure, and we needed it Wednesday. We decided right away that it needed to open with a line that married Trump’s words at the White House with the attack at the Capitol.

Then I took a couple deep breaths and started to sift through the stream of short, frantic feeds coming in. I had a sense of the sweep I wanted to deliver, so what I was looking for were specific, compelling details — the sort that would let me zoom the camera all the way in. Rebecca Tan and Rachel Chason, two of the extraordinary young journalists the Post has hired in recent years, were among the first to report back on the assault. Their dispatches were stunning. I remain in awe of their bravery.

A few minutes later, I got the call from Peter, about the shooting. After that, I messaged him and Rebecca directly and asked them to step away for a moment and send me fuller accounts of what they had seen. They responded within minutes.

Clark: I define news judgment as deciding on behalf of the reader what is most interesting and most important. How did you sort out the news elements and how to stack them in your lead?

Cox: The structure of the top came to me almost immediately, which I’m thankful for because it often doesn’t go that way. I talked Lynda through my vision for it, and she agreed. I don’t write much of anything (whether it’s 50 words or 5,000) before detailing it for her. This story had to be written with authority. Knowing that an editor you trust implicitly supports your approach gives you the confidence to do that.

I think of endings as destinations, and l like to write toward them, so after we settled on the first paragraph, I focused on the fourth. In this case, “USA” being chanted by a group of violent insurrectionists ravaging the citadel of American democracy had to be the concluding beat of that opening thought. It wasn’t the nut graph, in the way we traditionally define them, but it was the essence of the story I hoped we would deliver.

The second paragraph needed to tell, not show. We had to put this event into historical context, while tacking on the news that the riot had stopped the election’s certification.

I wanted a robust third paragraph loaded with arresting detail that would set up the absurdity and horror of the fourth. By then, I didn’t have time to go back through the feeds, so I went with what stuck out in my memory. Years ago, when I was a cops reporter at the Tampa Bay Times and on a tight daily deadline for a narrative, an editor told me to put down my notebook (until fact-checking, of course) and write what I remembered. The best material would surface in my mind. It was great advice, and I think the best material surfaced again Wednesday: the bashing through doors, the armed standoff, the woman shot, the tear gas on the Rotunda’s white marble. The words “Confederate flags” had to come last (I still remember your 2-3-1 rule) to create that juxtaposition with the next word: “USA.”. . .

Clark: It feels as if you were blending reported information with some storytelling. That third paragraph has lots of narrative action. How do you think about the mix of information and story elements?

Cox: I want everything I write to read like a story, not an article. Scene, dialogue, tension, a kicker worth waiting for. I do my best to thread the obligatory information into those elements rather than taking big pauses that could halt the momentum. It helps, of course, when you’re taking feeds from such a talented group of reporters who can spin together textured vignettes under pressure.


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