By Tony Rogers
Take Great Notes
This may 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 participants/ protagonists, their previous experiences, etc. The b-copy will fill out the bottom of the story, while the debate itself will be the top.
Learn about the subject of the debate
It makes a nice spectacle when candidates start going after each other with charges and countercharges. Is that really true? Or did the candidate leave something out? The more you know about the subject, the better you can assess the validity of argument and counter-arguments. This can make a story more interesting; and it is fun to do.
What should the public know about the debate?
A debate can be important, because the subject is in the news, because new information is produced during the debate or simply because the debate stirred a lot of emotions. Every journalists reporting on such an event is faced with a ‘balancing act’ between overkill and keeping the public informed. It may help to reflect on what the readers need to know about this topic while you are preparing for it.
How to use numbers?
Numbers can explain a lot, but often this is not the case. Readers often lose interest when they find numbers confusing or boring. Pay extra attention to explaining figures and numbers and make use of the guidelines on explanatory journalism. This should also be part of your preparations, since you will not have time once the debate is completed.
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 lead 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 lead.
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 lead.
Find Your Lead
Generally, your lead should sum up the debate’s main points.
Here’s an example of this type of lead 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 lead:
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.