A look at a career in TV and radio news by the Asian American Journalists Association. For more information go to www.aaja.org.
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
Blaise Pascal, (1623-1662) Lettres provinciales.
Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.
Henry David Thoreau
If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.
Marcus T. Cicero
You know that I write slowly. This is chiefly because I am never satisfied until I have said as much as possible in a few words, and writing briefly takes far more time than writing at length.
Karl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855)
It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.
The more you say, the less people remember. The fewer the words, the greater the profit.
No one who has read official documents needs to be told how easy it is to conceal the essential truth under the apparently candid and all-disclosing phrases of a voluminous and particularizing report….
“If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”
What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only history we have, and yet it is the tool of the worst men. But over a long period of time and because it is the product of so many men, it is perhaps the purest thing we have. Honesty has a way of creeping in even when it was not intended.
John Steinbeck (letter to the U.S. Information Service) E. Steinbeck and R. Wallsten, eds., Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (New York: Viking, 1975), 256.
Literary journalism isn’t about literary flourishes, it isn’t about literary references. Literary journalism at its best asks the questions that literature asks: about the nature of human nature and its place in [the] cosmos.
Ron Rosenbaum (in an interview with Tim Cavanaugh, Feed Magazine)
Leads & Teases
Getting listeners to keep their radios tuned to your entire newscast…that’s the function of leads and teases. (Incidentally, the first phrase of the previous sentence is itself a tease.) Despite the importance of leads and teases, many radio journalists do not understand how to fashion effective “hooks” to keep listeners listening.
Repetition is the most common mistake
Repetition is the most common mistake made in leads and teases. As you may have experienced when recognizing the identity of the first six words of the subhead with those at the beginning of this paragraph, repetition of words or ideas is tedious. Listeners understandably come to believe that there is far less news than meets the ear.
Yet repetition is a far-too-frequent feature of news writing, especially between the lead-in to tape (be it voicer, wrap or actuality) and the first sentence on that tape. Here’s one such example:
- EMBATTLED STATE LOTTERY DIRECTOR SAMANTHA WU HANDED IN HER RESIGNATION TO GOVERNOR FREDERICK DOUGLASS. REPORTER SUSAN STARR SAYS WU TOLD THE GOVERNOR THAT SHE HAD BECOME A POLITICAL DISTRACTION.
- IQ: “IN HER RESIGNATION LETTER TO THE GOVERNOR, WU SAID THAT SHE HAD BECOME A DISTRACTION…
The second sentence of the lead provides information that is immediately given again by the first sentence of the tape. This is not, however, the only problem with this lead.
Keep it fresh
Tenses of the past should be avoided in leads and teases. The preterite, or simple past tense, must almost never be used. Any past action should be described in the perfect tense — “have/has” + past participle, which often ends in “-ed.” The stative quality of the perfect tense can make it seem like the present.
Better still is the use of the present progressive tense — “am/are/is” + present participle ending in “-ing” — to describe an event that has just taken place. In the story above, it would have been better to write:
- EMBATTLED STATE LOTTERY DIRECTOR SAMANTHA WU IS CALLING IT QUITS. REPORTER SUSAN STARR SAYS WU FEARS THE CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING HER HUSBAND’S BUSINESS DEALINGS IS HARMING GOVERNOR DOUGLASS.
- IQ: “IN HER RESIGNATION LETTER TO THE GOVERNOR, WU SAID THAT SHE HAD BECOME A DISTRACTION…
Present tenses give immediacy and energy to news writing, allowing listeners to feel that they are hearing about the news as it is taking place. Moreover, in the course of the day leads should be advanced to freshen the story…even though the same tape is being used. In the example story given above, a later lead for the same tape could be as follows:
- GOVERNOR DOUGLASS MUST FIND A NEW LOTTERY DIRECTOR. REPORTER SUSAN STARR SAYS EMBATTLED CURRENT DIRECTOR SAMANTHA WU IS GIVING UP THE JOB.
- IQ: “IN HER RESIGNATION LETTER TO THE GOVERNOR, WU SAID THAT SHE HAD BECOME A DISTRACTION…
The changing lead shifts the emphasis of the story to a future event, the appointment of a new lottery director. The tape then functions as background information for this future event, and so the package of lead and tape together remain fresh.
Absent antecedent alert!
A frequent error in teases is the use of pronouns without any reference to identify the pronouns. The pronouns’ antecedents are absent. This error leads to teases such as:
- HE WANTED TO DIE BUT THEY SAID NO. THE STORY NEXT ON 990 NEWS.
Who is “he”? Who are “they”? (The story concerns a convicted murderer who asked the jury to sentence him to death, but the jury decided instead on a sentence of life in prison without parole.)
Some might claim that this lead has mystery, and this mystery will compel listeners to stay tuned. There certainly is mystery, but confusion seems the only result in the minds of listeners. A better tease gives listeners information, not a guessing game:
- LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE FOR CHILD-KILLER WALT THOMAS. THE DETAILS NEXT ON 990 NEWS.
Teases should not tell the entire story, but teases are only a sentence long. Even the most information-packed short sentence can rarely give all the necessary details to satisfy listeners. The tease whets the appetite of listeners, who will want the completeness of hearing the full script if they have an idea of what the story is about. Deliberately confusing or gimmicky teases only frustrate listeners and drive them away.
Journalism instructors often state that broadcast newswriting is supposed to sound just like everyday speech. In essence, however, writing broadcast news is more akin to writing song lyrics. Both tasks involve constructing language in a visual form (writing) for communication in an oral form (speaking or singing). Like song lyrics, broadcast newswriting adheres to patterns of language use (such as appropriate vocabulary and formulaic sentence-structure) that the audience expects to hear and will use in interpreting the communication.
Even though commercial broadcasting has been around for less than a century, radio listeners have come to expect their newscasts to be written in a particular way. Learning about broadcast sentence-structure is one of the foundations for developing effective skills at radio newswriting.
Keep it simple
Grammarians distinguish between three types of sentences: simple, compound and complex. A simple sentence contains a subject and a verb. A compound sentence is composed of two simple sentences joined by a coordinating conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or,” “nor”). A complex sentence is composed of two simple sentences joined by a subordinating conjunction (which may be temporal, such as “when”; causal, such as “because”; or concessive, such as “although”).
You probably remember this lesson from elementary school, but the distinctions remain quite relevant to broadcast newswriting. In your scripts, simple sentences are best. You will, of course, regularly use compound and complex sentences, but the clarity achieved through the use of simple sentences can rarely be surpassed.
Linguists describe English as a highly asyndetic language — which means that clauses in the same train of thought do not always need to be connected by conjunctions or connecting particles. Such particles in English include the words “moreover,” “furthermore,” and “however,” words that should be avoided in broadcast newswriting. Listeners are themselves capable of connecting the elements of a story if the story is presented clearly and concisely, and these listeners expect important news to be reported in simple sentences. This expectation is especially true of leads, which generally should be written as simple sentences. When a lead begins with a subordinating conjunction, listeners discount the story’s urgency. This is why such leads almost always appear in feature stories or zingers.
Avoid your relatives
Relative clauses, which begin with a relative pronoun or adverb such as “who,” “which” or “where,” provide additional information about a noun in a sentence. Those relative clauses which interrupt the flow of the sentence should not be used in broadcast newswriting. In a text communicated visually, a reader has the words on a page or screen to help guide him back to the story after the detour of a relative clause. Listeners do not have such a guide and must rely on the speaker to provide information in readily understood clauses that are concise and uninterrupted.
A sentence with an interrupting relative clause should be rewritten into two simple sentences. Take the following example:
- FRED GRANDY…WHO PLAYED “GOPHER” ON THE ORIGINAL “LOVEBOAT” T-V SERIES…LATER SPENT 8 YEARS AS A CONGRESSMAN FROM IOWA.
A clearer means of expressing the same information is through two simple sentences:
- FRED GRANDY PLAYED “GOPHER” ON THE ORIGINAL “LOVE BOAT” T-V SERIES. HE LATER SPENT 8 YEARS AS A CONGRESSMAN FROM IOWA.
Recognize that apposition — the placing of a noun or phrase after another noun and marked off only by commas or, in this very example, dashes — is like a relative clause without the relative pronoun. Long, interrupting appositions, like interrupting relative clauses, should be avoided in broadcast newswriting.
Relative clauses and appositions can be used at the end of a sentence. This placement is especially useful for clauses beginning with the adverb “where,” as in
- FIRE DESTROYED THE HISTORIC HOME, WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON ONCE SLEPT.
Clauses beginning with “who” or “which” are acceptable when placed at the end of a sentence, but sometimes it may be preferable to write two simple sentences instead. For example,
- SIMMONS IS SUING FOR RETURN OF THE “BARBIE”-DOLL COLLECTION, WHICH HE SAYS IS WORTH A QUARTER-OF-A-MILLION DOLLARS.
could also be written
- SIMMONS IS SUING FOR RETURN OF THE “BARBIE”-DOLL COLLECTION. HE SAYS THE COLLECTION’S WORTH A QUARTER-OF-A-MILLION DOLLARS.
Finally, two very common writing faults made by beginning reporters also appear nowadays in all other types of English writing, namely the overuse both of the passive voice and of the existential “there is,” “there are” construction. Use the active voice. Write sentences with subjects that are doing things and not subjects that are merely receiving actions upon them. Do not waste time stating an object’s existence (this is what the “there is” construction shows). Describe that object doing something.
Simple sentences with active verbs form the basis of effective writing for radio. All other broadcast newswriting techniques are built upon the foundation laid by this type of sentence structure.
Avoiding “Cop Talk”
Many of the stories we report involve crimes and police attempts to apprehend those responsible. The importance of these stories to our listeners, as well as the often complex and uncertain nature of police investigations, can be quite intimidating for young reporters, with the result that they frequently repeat verbatim the description of a crime given to them by a police official.
Don’t “do the police in different voices”
Police officers are taught to describe their investigations in a way that provides specific details of events with the vaguest possible discussions about those whom police believe responsible. This “cop talk” developed from the legal requirements that enforcement officials need to meet in order to make arrests and gain convictions. But “cop talk” is inadequate for reporting on radio.
Here’s an example of “cop talk,” a story only slightly modified from what was broadcast on a small-market station:
- TWO MEN ARE UNDER ARREST FOR ROBBING A JEWELRY STORE. POLICE SAY THE MEN ENTERED THE VILLAGE PAWN SHOP AT 1407 MAIN STREET AT APPROXIMATELY 10:15 YESTERDAY MORNING. AFTER WAITING INSIDE THE STORE FOR A FEW MINUTES, ONE OF THE MEN DISPLAYED A GUN AND ORDERED TWO EMPLOYEES TO PLACE INTO A DUFFEL BAG ALL THE CASH FROM THE REGISTER AS WELL AS SEVERAL ITEMS OF JEWELRY. THERE WAS NO ONE ELSE IN THE STORE AT THE TIME. THE MEN LEFT THE STORE, AND ONE EMPLOYEE WAS ABLE TO SEE THE MEN DRIVE OFF IN A BLUE DODGE ARIES. THE EMPLOYEES NOTIFIED POLICE, AND AT APPROXIMATELY 11 O’CLOCK A VEHICLE MATCHING THE DESCRIPTION OF THE GETAWAY CAR WAS SPOTTED PARKED IN AN ALLEY IN BACK OF A HOUSE AT 684 WILLOW STREET. POLICE ENTERED THE HOUSE WHERE THEY FOUND TWO MEN, AN AMOUNT OF MONEY, AND ITEMS OF JEWELRY LATER IDENTIFIED AS HAVING BEEN TAKEN FROM THE STORE. A COMPUTER CHECK OF THE VEHICLE DETERMINED THAT IT WAS STOLEN. THE MEN WERE IDENTIFIED AS 34-YEAR-OLD MILES STANDISH OF MIDDLEVILLE AND 28-YEAR-OLD JOHN ALDEN OF SMALLTOWN. THE MEN WILL FACE A VARIETY OF CHARGES.
Cut irrelevant details
This script (which runs about 54 seconds) is far too long, with irrelevant details such as the make and model of the getaway car, while the identification of the suspects isn’t revealed until the very end. It is obvious that the reporter merely repeated the words of a police officer or of a police press release. Here’s a brief rewrite of the script (which now runs 31 seconds):
- TWO MEN ARE BEHIND BARS THIS MORNING AFTER AN ARMED ROBBERY OF A MIDDLEVILLE PAWN SHOP. POLICE SAY 34-YEAR-OLD MILES STANDISH OF MIDDLEVILLE AND 28-YEAR-OLD JOHN ALDEN OF SMALLTOWN ROBBED THE VILLAGE PAWN SHOP ON MAIN STREET YESTERDAY, FORCING TWO WORKERS AT GUNPOINT TO STUFF A DUFFEL BAG WITH MONEY AND JEWELRY. THE SUSPECTS WERE LATER ARRESTED IN A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET AFTER POLICE SAY THEY SPOTTED THE GETAWAY CAR BEHIND THE HOME AND ITEMS TAKEN IN THE HEIST WERE FOUND INSIDE THE HOUSE. STANDISH AND ALDEN ARE EXPECTED TO FACE A VARIETY OF CHARGES.
The new version has the police making the allegations against the two suspects (as is legal and proper), but many details unnecessary to the main point of the story have been removed.
But don’t make the opposite mistake of being too informal
“Cop talk” is predominantly a problem in small-market stations in stories by inexperienced reporters, but the opposite extreme seems to be taking hold in larger markets. Big-city reporters are becoming exceedingly colloquial in their language when covering police stories. Here’s an example that aired on a major-market station in New England. The story concerned a stolen minivan in which a mother had left two babies inside. In telling the story the reporter said:
- …A WOMAN LEFT TWO INFANTS IN THE VAN WHILE SHE DROPPED OFF AN OLDER CHILD AT DAYCARE. THE VAN WAS STILL RUNNING, AND MEANWHILE SOME GUY MUST HAVE JUMPED IN AND DROVE OFF. WHEN HE REALIZED THERE WERE TWO INFANTS IN BACK, HE DITCHED THE VAN, AND POLICE ARE NOW SEARCHING FOR THE GUY IN SOME NEARBY WOODS…. BUT THANKFULLY THE KIDS ARE OKAY.
This script does not clearly report what police believe to have happened. In fact, the script seems to indicate that this version of events is merely speculation on the part of the reporter. There was no indication of any witness seeing who drove the minivan away. Perhaps the driver was a woman. Moreover, there is no evidence for the alleged motivation of this mystery driver to have abandoned the minivan. Maybe the driver saw the babies, maybe the driver didn’t.
Just as troubling as the sloppiness with which this script was put together was the overly conversational tone. A suspect of unknown sex should be called a “suspect.” If an unidentified suspect is a man, he should be called a “man” — not “some guy.” Being too chatty damages the credibility of the reporter to be an authoritative source of information.
Radio reporters need to strike a balance in the language they use. Scripts cannot be ploddingly detailed and dull, yet being too colloquial may lead to sloppiness and lack of credibility.
Charges & Allegations
During the initial flurry of stories concerning President Clinton’s relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the late ABC-TV news anchor Peter Jennings interviewed humorist and social commentator P. J. O’Rourke. Jennings asked O’Rourke to discuss “the alleged age difference between the President and Ms. Lewinsky,” to which O’Rourke wittily replied, “Yes, Peter, we haven’t yet determined whether there actually is an age difference between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. There is only an alleged age difference.”
Jennings smiled at the reply, realizing that he had misused the word “alleged.” The word allows journalists to discuss claims that have not been proved, but it is a word easily open to abuse.
Say, say, say
The best way to use the words “allege,” “alleged” and “allegedly” is not to use them at all. Instead, have your scripts reveal who is making the claim by using phrases such as “police say” or “prosecutors say” followed by the substance of the allegation. For example, a story about a bank-robbery suspect that contains the sentence
- …34-YEAR-OLD MILLARD FILLMORE ALLEGEDLY ROBBED THE “BANK NOW” BRANCH ON CHURCH STREET….
should be rewritten so that the sentence reads
- …POLICE SAY 34-YEAR-OLD MILLARD FILLMORE ROBBED THE “BANK NOW” BRANCH ON CHURCH STREET….
As another example, if a sentence in a story about a local government official facing trial for corruption reads
- …ZONING BOARD PRESIDENT DOLLY MADISON IS ALLEGED TO HAVE TAKEN BRIBES FROM DEVELOPERS….
rewrite the script into something like
- …PROSECUTORS SAY ZONING BOARD PRESIDENT DOLLY MADISON TOOK BRIBES FROM DEVELOPERS….
Always use the verb “say” in such scripts. Avoid the temptation to employ other verbs (such as “claim,” “state” or “charge”) when reporting allegations. Other verbs bring connotations that will color your reporting. For example, if your script has police claiming that an individual committed a crime, your listeners may well interpret the script as indicating that you the reporter do not believe the police. To speak of someone charging an allegation implies legal actions — charges — have been filed. To maintain as unbiased and accurate a report as possible, stay with the neutral verb “say.”
Learn the distinction between “accused” and “alleged.” When legal charges have been filed against an individual, that individual becomes accused of the behavior detailed in those charges. The individual can then be described as an “accused rapist,” “accused murderer,” “accused embezzler,” and so forth. In scripts, the use of the adjective accused should be limited to one occurrence at or near the beginning of the script in order to describe a suspect quickly and efficiently. Notice the use of the word in this story about a homicide trial:
- ACCUSED MURDERER AARON BURR HAS BROKEN DOWN IN TEARS AT HIS TRIAL, TELLING JURORS THAT HE DID NOT KILL HIS FRIEND ALEX HAMILTON LAST JULY. TAKING THE STAND IN HIS OWN DEFENSE, BURR CRIED YESTERDAY AS HE WAS TALKING ABOUT HIS INITIAL INTERROGATION BY SHERIFF’S DEPUTIES. BURR SAID INTIMIDATING QUESTIONING CAUSED HIM TO GIVE CONFLICTING STORIES TO INVESTIGATORS. PROSECUTORS HAVE SAID THAT BURR KILLED HAMILTON AFTER AN ARGUMENT OVER MONEY IN HAMILTON’S MOHICAN SPRINGS APARTMENT. BURR IS EXPECTED TO FACE CROSS-EXAMINATION WHEN THE TRIAL RESUMES AT THE HANOVER COUNTY COURTHOUSE LATER TODAY.
In the above script, the adjective “accused” appears once and only once. Multiple use may lead listeners to believe that you the reporter want them to think a suspect is guilty because the adjective “accused” is weaker than the powerful nouns it regularly accompanies (such as “murderer” or “rapist”).
As has already been mentioned, the verb “charge” implies that legal actions have been filed against an individual or company. The verb should be used only to describe the process of filing the action:
- POLICE HAVE CHARGED 32-YEAR-OLD LIZZIE BORDEN WITH TWO COUNTS OF FIRST-DEGREE MURDER FOR THE PICK-AXE SLAYINGS OF HER FATHER AND STEP-MOTHER….
The specific legal charge should also be named, such as the “two counts of first-degree murder” of the previous example. Pay careful attention to the specific charge. Prosecutors may say that an individual is a murderer and organized-crime boss but charge him with only tax evasion. The defendant could then be described as being “accused of tax evasion” but not as an “accused murderer and crime boss” — the murders and organized-crime connections are allegations, not charges.
Occasions do exist for the use of “allege,” “alleged” or “allegedly.” When claims are made concerning an individual but no legal charges have been publicly filed, and the source of the claims is complicated to identify, then “alleged” becomes an acceptable option for describing the individual and the claims. For example, a community group holds a press conference calling for the firing of the deputy chief of police. Earlier that week, three former civilian employees of the police department told a newspaper reporter that they have heard the deputy chief use racial slurs. The reporter was investigating a tip that the deputy chief had recently faced a closed-door, disciplinary hearing with the public safety director and the civil service commission.
The complex nature of the story can lead to extremely tortured syntax in your script. In this situation, a sentence such as
- …THE “TOGETHER COALITION” IS ANGRY OVER RACIST COMMENTS ALLEGEDLY MADE BY DEPUTY CHIEF FRANKLIN PIERCE….
might be the most efficient way of succinctly explaining the story. As with “accused,” forms of “alleged” should be used only once in a given script.
Finally, remember the mistake of Peter Jennings and ensure that you place the word “alleged” in front of what is actually being alleged. Rewriting the previous script example to read
- …THE “TOGETHER COALITION” IS ANGRY OVER ALLEGEDLY RACIST COMMENTS MADE BY DEPUTY CHIEF FRANKLIN PIERCE….
significantly changes the meaning of the sentence. Now the question is not whether the deputy chief made comments, but rather whether the particular words he used were racist. If, however, it has not yet been determined what, if anything, the deputy chief may have said, the allegations concern the making of the comment and not the sense of the comments themselves. The earlier version of the sentence is then the correct one.
Finally, until a judicial authority has rendered a decision, a suspect or defendant has not been proved guilty of the charges or allegations against him. Not only is it unethical to describe this individual as, say, a “murderer” or “embezzler” without the qualification of words like “accused” and “alleged,” but such descriptions could turn you into a defendant yourself — for libel.
–Taken from Newswriting for Radio