Good stories surprise the reader

Surprise in a news story can take a couple of forms, information you didn’t know or something you didn’t expect.

Flipping through a newspaper and seeing an item you had no idea you’d want to read is an example of serendipity, a happy coincidence.

In a story, the surprise is planned and strategically placed.

Helen Pearson, chief features editor at Nature, says, “good science stories are no different to good stories about anything else – they’re just a great read.”

Pearson especially likes leads that surprise.

I’ve opened stories with an unintelligible line of Jane Austen; 9,000 placentas stewing in buckets; an impotent mouse; a phone call from a -80C freezer. In some cases, the opening might be the moment in time where your story starts – for example, one of my stories opened with the arrival of a fax that told scientists they had found the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis. Often the opening involves a person. I love it when you’re reporting a story and something unscripted happens (eg the freezer calls) and you think: that’s my lead.

CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman is expert at building to and then springing surprises on the viewers of his stories.

In a story aired on The CBS Evening News and The Osgood File on CBS radio, Hartman offers up not one surprise, but several.

VO (Voice over pictures) – Steve Hartman, CBS News Correspondent
“Born to Chinese immigrants, 17-year-old Angela Zhang of Cupertino, California is a typical American teenager. She’s really into shoes and is just learning how to drive.”

SOT (Sound on tape) – Angela Zhang
“Every girl needs boots. (laughs)”

VO – Steve Hartman
“She’s really into shoes – and just learning how to drive.”

“But there is one thing that separates Angela from every other student at Monta Vista High School – something she first shared with her chemistry teacher. It’s a research paper Angela wrote in her spare time – it’s a recipe for curing cancer.”

SOT – Kavita Gupta, Angela Zhang’s chemistry teacher – with Steve Hartman
“(Hartman:) Cure for cancer?! (Gupta:) Cure for cancer – a high school student. So, it’s just so mind-boggling…”

SOT – Angela Zhang
“I just thought: ‘Why not?’ (laughs) I mean, what is there to lose? So…”

VO – Steve Hartman
“So, when she was a freshman, she started reading doctorate level papers on bio-engineering. By sophomore year, she’d talked her way into the lab at Stanford…”

VO – Steve Hartman
“Angela thought: What if you mixed cancer medicine with a polymer that would attach to nanoparticles that would then attach to cancer cells and show up on the MRI, so doctors could see where the tumors were?”

“Then, she thought: what if you aimed an infrared light at the tumors to melt the polymer and release the medicine – killing the cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells completely unharmed.”

SOT – Angela Zhang, with Steve Hartman
“(Zhang:) I think it was more of a ‘This is really cool, I want to see if it works’ type thing. (Hartman:) And when you found out it did? (Zhang:) That was pretty amazing.”

VO – Steve Hartman
“It’ll take years to know if it works in humans – but in mice, the tumors almost completely disappeared.”

“Angela recently entered her project in the National Siemens Science Contest…”

“She got a check for 100,000 dollars – and promptly bought about a dozen more pairs of shoes.”

SOT – Angela Zhang
“I got these shoes, ‘cuz they’re purple and I didn’t have purple yet.”

VO – Steve Hartman
“Easy to forget, she is still high school. It’s just her dreams that keep graduating.”

SOT – Angela Zhang
“I’m excited to learn just everything possible,” she said. “Everything in the sciences — biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, even computer science — to make new innovations possible.”

VO – Steve Hartman
“Pretty big flats to fill. How will she top her cancer discovery? We can’t wait.”

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and former API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel who previously co-chaired the committee.