Clear, direct, strong writing is the key to effective communication in all professional writing careers. Each genre, like newspaper, magazine, novel, broadcast, public relations, web content, blogging, etc., comes with its own set of particular rules, standards and writing styles. Mastering the art of writing in your particular area of interest is paramount to the success of your message and thus your career. The focus of this article is on how to write for broadcast news. We begin with some background on the industry and current and future trends.
Broadcast news faced dark days in the 1990s when experts predicted its almost-certain demise. Analysts prognosticated then that the up-and-coming, powerful Internet would quickly put a choke-hold on broadcast TV news, seriously wounding or even killing it. While great changes have occurred in the broadcast news industry in the last two decades, those predictions or reports were as Mark Twain once said, “greatly exaggerated.” That’s how the famous, American author responded to erroneous reports that he got sick and died in 1897.
Statistics indicate Americans continue to have a hearty, if not growing, appetite for news with the majority of them still receiving it from television. According to Papper in his publication, Broadcast News and Writing Stylebook, the younger generation prefers the Internet for news, and all age demographics use multiple sources. The older generation still leans toward television and newspaper as their favorite sources. Nonetheless, the average local TV station in America runs 5 hours and 18 minutes of news per weekday with that number rising each year. That means TV news continues to generate income, and stations continue to support news programming.
In order to survive, most local TV stations work to adapt to new technologies and trends with 80 percent of local stations supplying news content for their own websites. Others also run news on the radio, cable channels, digital channels, mobile devices, and on additional TV stations within or outside their own market. Although these new delivery methods have fragmented news consumption, so far, traditional news sources are still supplying most of the content.
Papper believes another reason for the staying-power of TV news is American’s continued infatuation with television sets: the more the merrier and the bigger the better. (Sharp announced in a press release June 19, 2012, the production of what it calls, “the largest LED TV on the planet.” It boasts a massive 90-inch diameter screen.) Furthermore, the ongoing trend to merge technologies, such as TVs, computers and mobile devices, has helped keep television alive. While the future remains unclear, it will be interesting and even exciting to see where technology and social trends take television and news. Regardless of the platform, Papper states, “For the foreseeable future, people will want to see and hear and read news and information, and those who want to provide it must learn how to tell stores in pictures and words. The rest is detail.”
Good, solid writing is vital. In fact, it’s how, as a college intern, I landed my first broadcast news job at KUTV-2 in Salt Lake City. Day one of my internship, the news director handed me a video-taped interview with the request to view it and write a story, complete with voice-over-video and a sound bite from the interviewee. I nervously tackled the task, and then tentatively presented the final product or script to the news director for review. He read it, and then much to my relief pronounced to the newsroom, “This girl can write.” Phew! I was so thankful I had learned and practiced broadcast writing and scripting in college. This event serves two purposes: one it highlights the importance of good writing, and two it stresses the value of first impressions. That positive pronouncement from the news director followed me through my entire internship and helped secure a full-time job there as a producer.
So, for those who want to pursue a career in the evolving and challenging world of broadcast news, honing your writing skills is paramount—regardless of future format or delivery method. While mastering grammar rules, spelling, punctuation, word usage and the Associated Press Stylebook are a must, there are also a few tips and techniques unique to broadcast writing. News stories are crafted for the ear, with a definite time limit and in most cases written with video in mind.
Before we go further, why news? According to the Society of Newspaper editors, “The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinions is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time.” This holds true for print as well as all other forms of news, regardless of the delivery system. Talk shows, Hollywood reports and sportscasts serve a slightly different purpose—offering audiences options for entertainment programming. Americans love to be entertained.
Next, what is news? Several characteristics have evolved that determine what information is newsworthy. In his text book, Mencher states those characteristics can be divided into seven categories: Impact, Unusual, Prominence, Conflict, Proximity, Timeliness and Currency. Obviously, it is considered news if an important or highly unusual event greatly impacts a viewing audience. Also, stories that involve people of prominence, such as world leaders, Hollywood stars, popular athletes or even an ordinary person who does something extraordinary–like jump in a raging river to save a child–could qualify for inclusion in a newscast. Great conflicts—war or political battles—are on the top of the news list. Also, stories
that occur near viewers may be of more interest than those on the other side of the world. Breaking news or timely events that will happen or have recently happened may also be of interest to an audience. And finally, issues that are current or in the public’s eye at the time—say the struggling economy or the shocking Sandusky child abuse trial—are newsworthy.
It is up to station news managers to determine what is and isn’t news for their audiences each day. It is not an exact science, but good judgment and knowledge of the audience and experience are essential. Once a story is deemed newsworthy and the information is gathered, putting that story into words, possibly with video or some visual, is the next step.
Relying on personal experience as a former TV news producer and gleaning information from several books, articles and websites, the following are tips and examples to help would-be journalists learn to write broadcast copy. The list is fairly thorough, but certainly not exhaustive. The examples provided start with a bad one, followed by an improved version.
Top 10 tips:
1. First and foremost—keep it short. A sentence should contain no more than one main thought or idea.
- Fire gutted an apartment complex this evening on Fifth and Elm in Chicago killing two children and injuring one adult.
- Two children are dead tonight after fire gutted their downtown, Chicago apartment.
2. Make it clear and concise—when in doubt, leave it out.
- A local, winter storm, bringing a foot of snow, has caused the school board to cancel classes today and the children are happy to have a snow day.
- School is cancelled today as a winter storm hits the area. The school board made that call after a foot of snow fell overnight. Many students say they’re happy to have a snow day.
3. Write like you speak—conversationally.
- I am so exasperated from viewing such insensitive behavior and will no longer tolerate the racial discrimination that I encounter each day while meandering through the halls of the campus, complained the Dean of the University of Florida.
- The University of Florida condemns racial discrimination. The Dean says he’s tired of seeing such insensitive behavior on campus.
4. Use Active voice—Subject-Verb-Object (SVO).
- The baseball was hit over the fence by the player.
- The baseball player hit the ball over the fence.
5. Use present tense—but don’t overdo it.
- A gunman shot and killed a man in Amarillo today. Police detectives have been looking for the suspect all day.
- Amarillo Police look for a killer tonight. Detectives say the suspect allegedly shot and killed a man earlier today.
6. Use conversational contractions—when meaning is clear.
- Senator James Taylor says he isn’t running for office this election.
- Senator James Taylor says he is NOT running for office this election.
7. Avoid highly technical words, clichés and professional jargon.
- An MRI scanner is a medical apparatus where a patient lies inside a large, powerful magnet where magnetic fields are utilized to align the magnetization of atomic nuclei in the body, and then radio frequency fields are used to systematically alter the alignment of this specific magnetization.
- An MRI scans a patient using a powerful magnet and radio frequencies to see inside the body.
8. Attributions are better at the first of a sentence.
- The sinkhole grows bigger everyday…says the road crew manager in Centerville.
- The road crew manager in Centerville says, “The sinkhole grows bigger every day.”
9. Don’t bury a strong verb in a noun—use vigorous verbs.
- A bomb explosion went off in downtown Beirut.
- A bomb exploded in downtown Beirut.
10. Use the traditional inverted pyramid style—strong lead. Should answer the questions of who, what, when, where, why and how within this framework.
More tips & techniques: http://journalism.about.com/od/writing/a/broadcast.htm?p=1
In an interview, Dean Paynter, director of Production and Program Development at KJZZ 14 Television in Salt Lake City, echoed these tips. He said broadcast writing must be “short, sharp and strong.” He added that subject-verb-subject sentences are most effective. Paynter mastered these skills while working at various positions in the industry that included in part; executive producer at KUTV-2 News in Salt Lake City, news director and adjunct instructor at Brigham Young University and public affairs program producer for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. All of his jobs involved and still involve writing and producing programs for television. Paynter was my mentor, supporter and friend at KUTV-2. I know he has served the same role for many others who were privileged to work under his great tutelage.
Here’s more sound writing advice from Paynter:
Conversational writing doesn’t mean any conversation. It should mimic a
conversation that one has when one thinks through what one is saying
and must make a point. Take the time to think through the story, or whatever
it is that you are writing about. Create that image in your mind, and then have
the courage to write it with simple, familiar and powerful words. Most
importantly, make the effort to go back and refine your writing. Make sure
every word is needed. Always wonder if there is a better way to write that
sentence or thought (Paynter, personal communication, June 23, 2012).
While instructing college students in the art of writing, Paynter used the following exercise to help students compose for the ear. He had one student write a story and then read it to another student. The one listening was then tested on what he retained from the reading. The writer’s grade was based on what the listener remembered. Paynter credits this exercise with getting the students to communicate more truthfully and effectively, rather than to impress others or themselves—a great tool.
Some of Paynter’s pet peeves are when writers try to scare, trick or manipulate their audience. This is fairly common in writing teases that attempt to get viewers to watch or continue watching a newscast. Paynter stated, “You can write a lot of stupid stuff that it outrageous by implication, but not untruthful. For example, ‘The president is flying to Europe tonight. Will he be shot down by outer space aliens loyal to Vladimir Putin?’ Well, of course, he won’t. But the question can still be asked truthfully. It speaks down to the audience as if the news is some kind of game show.”
Paynter added that news writers should answer questions—not ask them. He believes question teases are just a crutch for lazy writers who don’t bother to take the time to craft “a thoughtful, declarative tease.” He also dislikes “stupid segues” and feels they are evidence of when a writer rushes through his job and doesn’t consider himself as a viewer/ listener, but rather “considers news writing a cute puzzle of sorts.” Paynter acknowledged that most local broadcast news programs are staffed by the young and inexperienced. It will take time to season these youngsters to handle complex issues and events due to their lack of life experience.
Online News writing:
Many people believe the future of broadcast and print news is online. As mentioned earlier, while changes have and will happen, the future of news remains unclear. Historically, as newer technologies arise, older media are forced to evolve or die. Most choose to evolve as evidenced by online TV, radio and newspaper websites. Thus, online news writing is a growing sector of the business. Since online news writing is still relatively new, the rules, formats and styles for this genre are still evolving themselves.
Online news writing is a hi-bred of writing styles. Broadcast, print and even public relations writing skills are used in this medium. Journalism/Communication students now entering this field need to be skilled at writing for broadcast, print and digital media. They will likely craft stories for delivery to television sets, radios, desktop computers, laptops, handhelds, iPods and mobile phones. While learning multiple skill sets is challenging, having these varied abilities make students more versatile and marketable.
Since online news users are considered skimming readers, catchy, informative headlines are a must. Also, using other communicative and organizational elements, such as videos, photo galleries, graphs and charts, bullet points, and hyperlinks help the internet user more easily navigate the Web page. The trend in online news leans toward a multimedia approach or presentation. Again, a varied skill-set is necessary for the modern media writer.
Internet news users or skimmers are definitely in the driver’s seat. They are frequently busy so making their journey on your web page smooth, clear and fast is a must. Again, the same writing principles for other news media hold true—accuracy, clarity, and brevity are key. Papper offers the following seven basic rules on page 168 of his book:
Online Writing Rules:
1. It’s still journalism. Do it right. Speed is helpful; mistakes are not.
2. Think about the medium. What different techniques can you use to tell different parts of the story—or, perhaps, the same parts in different ways.
3. Think about readers or users. They’re sitting 18 inches from a monitor with lots of choices, and even as they read, they’re holding a device (the mouse) to make new choices. What will capture their attention? What do they want to know? What might some of them want to know? Use quotes. Build in surprises. Appeal personally (like broadcast). Think about how you’ll grab the attention of the scanning user.
4. The headline needs to provide concrete information. In many cases, users may be faced with a choice simply based on headline. Think about whether they’ll know enough to make a choice. The lead/opening paragraph needs to tell the overall story tightly and succinctly. Remember that every sentence determines whether the next sentence will be read. Every choice provides alternative ways to go. Make sure there’s a clear geographic identifier in the headline, subhead or lead.
5. The experience may be nonlinear, but each element of the information is linear. And each of those elements needs to be self-supporting. Stories are a collection of short linear pieces that could very well be consumed in a random, nonlinear manner. Use links to split long blocks into multiple pages.
6. Think interactivity. Think about what you can present or include that can get the user involved. That could include the ability to personalize the data for each user or a variety of multimedia tools.
7. Try new things. There’s a lot more we don’t know about using the web than what we do know. Experiment and learn.
More online news writing:
Broadcast news appears to be here to stay, at least in some fashion, for a long time. With that, broadcast journalists need to hone their skills to supply quality content that is direct, sharp, concise and clear. Learning the tricks of the trade takes time and practice, but there is plenty of help available. Good, solid writing is at the core of every fine newscast or production. Writers need to keep their viewing/listening audience always in mind to better communicate. Modern broadcast journalists must also be well-rounded. They must adapt their knowledge and skills to write and produce for the Web. This new and upcoming medium is still evolving and flexibility is a plus.
Whatever the medium, genre or format, skillful writing is a universal necessity. John Pulitzer, one of the great journalists of the 19th century, expressed it perfectly: “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”
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Joseph Pulitzer. (2002-2012). Brainy Quote. Retrieved from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/josephpuli126204.html
Lattimore, L. (n.d.). Broadcast writing style tips. JPROF: the web site for teaching journalism. Retrieved from http://jprof.come/broadcasting/bestyletips.html
Mark Twain. (n.d.). ThePhrasefinder.com. Retrieved from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/368850.html
Mencher, Melvin. (1983). Basic media writing (5th Ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: WCG Brown & Benchmark Publishers.
Papper, R. A. (2013). Broadcast news and writing stylebook (Fifth Ed.). New York, NY.
Rogers, T. (2012). Tips for basic broadcast newswriting: Keep it short and conversational. Retrieved from http://journalism.about.com/od/writing/a/broadcast.htm?p=1
Stepno, Robert. (2006). Online News Writing. Retrieved from http://www.stepno.com/oldblog/stories/2006/10/27/onlineNewsWriting.html