Don’t feel like reading this lecture? Click here for a video of me walking you through the key points.
Want to be a great broadcast news writer? The most important responsibility is making sure your information is correct. Don’t get so caught up in getting breaking news on the air, that you forget the purpose of broadcast news is to inform the public.
For a quick lesson on how to verify your information, read 8 ways to spot fake news.
Break bad writing habits
It takes practice to break the bad habits you created while filling long essays with fluff. The two big rules you must follow for broadcast and web writing are:
- be concise
- be conversational
You MUST follow these two rules in every script and web story you write for this class. If you use big words and long sentences, your writing will not sound good, and you’ll waste people’s time.
Write For The Ear
You have one chance to get your message across because your audience won’t re-read your script if it’s unclear.
Pay attention to how words sound when read out loud. This is especially important if you’re using too much alliteration like this:
What can happen if you don’t read your script out loud?
The San Francisco TV station KTVU could have been sued by Asiana Airlines had they not made a public apology for airing fake names of four pilots involved in a crash. Asiana decided not to pursue a lawsuit, but KTVU suffered a damaged reputation and fired several producers after the mistake went viral. Had the producers or anchor read the script out loud, they may have noticed the names were part of a racist “joke.”
Ask yourself if you’d really talk like that in real life. If not, don’t write it. Be as casual as possible without being offensive.
Use common words, but use them very well. – Broadcast News Handbook
Always use good contractions.
- Good contractions:
- That is
- It is
- There is
- Do not use awkward contractions:
Read every script out loud. If you wouldn’t say it out loud, don’t write it.
There are too many rules to follow them all in every script. But you have to have a good reason for breaking any rule.
Active voice makes your writing stronger and more concise. When you write for broadcast, your goal is to use the least number of words to convey a message. Active writing cuts out unnecessary words.
The actor is performing the action. So the noun should be before the verb. If you put “have” or “had” between the noun and the verb, you’re turning an active sentence into a passive one. If you need to brush up on your grammar, this is a good source:
If you need to brush up on your grammar, Grammarly is a good source. I suggest browsing their online handbook. Grammarly has a free plugin for Chrome browsers that checks your writing and may catch errors that your other spell check and grammar checks may miss.
Active: Police arrested the gunman.
Passive: The gunman was arrested by police.
Passive: The gunman has been arrested.
Active: I sent the email.
Passive: I have sent the email.
Passive: The email was sent by me.
Active: He wrote the script.
Passive: He has written the script.
Passive: The script was written by him.
New, Now, Next
Don’t just tell audiences what happened in the past. In your lead line, tell them what’s happening now, what will happen next, and/or what’s new. Your lead line should include the newest information. If something is important enough to write about, it should have some effect on people in the future. Tell me what’s next first, not what happened in the past.
Never use the word “yesterday” in your lead line.
Use “yesterday” in the body of your scripts instead of the day of the week. For example, if today is Monday, August 31st and you’re describing an event that happened on Sunday, August 30th you should say “yesterday” instead of “Sunday.” If you’re talking about an event happening on Saturday, September 5th just say “Saturday.” Use dates when the day you’re referring to is more than a week away. The same goes for “tomorrow.”
Words and phrases to avoid
- “Incident.” It’s vague and not conversational.
- “Non-life threatening injuries.” In real life, you’d say “should be ok,” “expected to survive,” etc.
- “Resident.” Just call them people. No one ever says “resident” in real life.
- “Alleged” or “allegedly.” This could get you in legal trouble.
- “Fatal shooting” or “deadly shooting.” Just say “shot to death.”
- “Suspect.” If someone shoots someone else to death, but police don’t know who the killer is, then they aren’t a suspect. The person they’re looking for is a “killer,” “murderer,” or “gunman.” A person only becomes a suspect once police specifically accuse him or her of being the killer.
- “Has/had/have” When you write any of those words it should be a red flag. If you can delete the word, and the sentence still makes sense, then don’t use it. Sentences should be as short as possible. Has/had/have usually means your sentence is passive.
- “Police involved shooting.” Soooo who was shot?
- “Blaze.” Just say “fire” or “flames.”
- “As well as.” Just say “and.”
- False present tense. Don’t fake present tense if you’re referring to something that happened in the past. Here’s an example of a common newsroom error: “HE CRASHES HIS CAR… TAKES OFF… THEN POLICE CATCH HIM.” This is all false present tense. The writer intended to write to the video to make it seem current. Do NOT use false present tense. Instead, write a thoughtful and fresh script, and use correct grammar to describe the video. For example: “RIGHT NOW, A MAN IS UNDER ARREST FOR CRASHING HIS CAR AND RUNNING FROM POLICE.”
When you write acronyms, make sure to include a dash in between the letters.
Example: The Internal Revenue Service is written IRS but you say it I-R-S out loud. So when you write for broadcast you should write “I-R-S” so the anchor doesn’t say “irs.”
Some acronyms are special like NCAA. This is actually said “N-C-double-A” not “N-C-A-A.”
NAACP is “N- double- A-C-P.
All symbols should be written out.
Ex: $10 is written “TEN DOLLARS”
EX: 1.2M is written “ONE- POINT- TWO- MILLION”
Ex: 1,200,000 is written “ONE- POINT- TWO- MILLION”
Dashes after each word help break it up for the teleprompter. If one word is too long then the prompter will cut it off and it will be hard to read.
Remember to attribute information. If a press release from the Tampa Police Department is telling you that they arrested John Smith for murdering his girlfriend, you must attribute.
Ex: Police tell us John Smith murdered his girlfriend
The only time it’s safe to say “John Smith murdered his girlfriend” is after he’s convicted in a court of law. This is the rule even if you see video or pictures of him committing the crime. If he hasn’t been convicted, then he’s only accused or charged.
Here’s an example of a poorly written broadcast news script:
What’s wrong with this script?
- “FATALLY SHOT” is not conversational
- When was the last time you used the word MOTORIST?
- 16TH should technically be SIXTEENTH… but I don’t think you really need the date at all do I’d delete it and just say “TWO WEEKS AGO”
- “SHOOTING DEATH” is not conversational
- When was the last time you used the word VEHICLE? Just write CAR, TRUCK, or S-U-V
Here’s a better version:
What’s wrong with this script?
- Dylann Roof’s name should not be in the lead sentence because he’s not known by everyone.
- The fragment after “Dylann Roof” is for web or print, not broadcast. When you read the first sentence out loud, the fragment makes your voice pause in an awkward way.
- The lead is past tense. It should be new, now, next.
- There’s not enough context to explain why race matters.
- The writer assumed everyone knows what happened at the Charleston church shooting.
Here’s a better version:
How can you make this script better?
Remove these unnecessary and passive words:
- BE ABLE TO
- CABLE PROVIDERS HAVE VIEWED NETFLIX AS A THREAT, AS PEOPLE TURNED TO THE INTERNET TO GET THEIR ENTERTAINMENT
- THAT SIGNS UP FOR
Here’s the concise re-write:
The first script is 23-sec. The second script is 13-sec. A high story count in a newscast is a big priority at most stations. 10 seconds here or there will add up to a big difference in an hour long show.
What’s wrong with this script?
(*FYI this script was written on Tuesday, August 1, 2016)
FORMER LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF LEE BACA HAS CHANGED HIS PLEA ON CORRUPTION CHARGES.
BACA WITHDREW HIS GUILTY PLEA ON MONDAY AND WILL GO TO TRIAL IN SEPTEMBER.
IN JULY, A FEDERAL JUDGE REJECTED BACA’S PLEA DEAL.
JUDGE PERCY ANDERSON SAID THE AGREEMENT – WHICH WOULD HAVE SEEN BACA SERVING A MAXIMUM SIX MONTH SENTENCE – WAS “TOO LENIENT.”
BACK IN FEBRUARY, BACA PLEADED GUILTY TO ONE FELONY COUNTY OF LYING TO THE F-B-I DURING AN INTERVIEW.
F-B-I AGENTS AND FEDERAL PROSECUTORS WERE INVESTIGATING A SCHEME THAT BECAME UNOFFICIALLY KNOWN AS “OPERATION PANDORA’S BOX.”
IT INVOLVED MOVING AN INMATE — WHO HAD BEEN COLLECTING INFORMATION ON ALLEGED CORRUPTION — TO ANOTHER JAIL UNDER A FALSE NAME, WHERE MORE THAN A DOZEN DEPUTIES SUPERVISED HIM CONSTANTLY.
ACCORDING TO PROSECUTORS, BACA FALSELY STATED THAT HE HAD NO KNOWLEDGE OF THE SCHEME.
NINE OTHER FORMER SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT OFFICIALS HAVE EITHER PLEADED GUILTY OR BEEN CONVICTED IN CONNECTION WITH THE SCHEME.
BACA SPOKE TO REPORTERS MONDAY, OUTSIDE THE COURTROOM WHERE HE CHANGED HIS PLEA.
- This script is way too long.
- The lead uses the word “HAS.”
- The lead is past tense. It should be not new, now, next.
- There shouldn’t be spaces in between each sentence.
- Each sentence should be tabbed like the beginning of a paragraph.
- The writer should explain the corruption charge sooner and more precisely.
- The sheriff’s first name shouldn’t be in the lead sentence since he isn’t known by everyone. The man’s title is sufficient in the lead.
- The script says “MONDAY.” It should say “YESTERDAY.”
- This sentence has two separate thoughts, so it should be two separate sentences: “BACA WITHDREW HIS GUILTY PLEA ON MONDAY AND WILL GO TO TRIAL IN SEPTEMBER.” This should be “BACA WITHDREW HIS GUILTY PLEA YESTERDAY. HE’LL GO TO TRIAL NEXT MONTH.” (Note: any time you use the word “AND” ask yourself if you can just put a period and start a new sentence. Short sentences are always preferred.)
What would you fix here?
- The lead is written like a print or web sentence. This format is NEVER ok in broadcast because people don’t talk like that in real life. You’d never say a person’s name, then pause, then say a description about that person, then pause again, then say the point of the sentence last. If an anchor reads this sentence out loud, it will sound awkward.
- You should never use a person’s name in the first sentence unless they are known by every viewer. In this instance, you could argue that Jerry Sandusky is known enough that his name can go in the first sentence. But if that’s your argument, then why do you feel the need to explain who he is by saying “WHO WAS CONVICTED OF SEXUALLY ABUSING TEN BOYS?” This tells me that the writer isn’t confident that Jerry Sandusky’s name shouldn’t be in the lead line.
- I would fix it by re-writing it one of these ways:
- A FORMER PENN STATE ASSISTANT COACH SAYS HE WAS WRONGFULLY CONVICTED OF SEXUALLY ABUSING TEN BOYS.
- JERRY SANDUSKY WANTS A JUDGE TO OVERTURN HIS CHARGES FOR SEXUALLY ABUSING TEN BOYS.
- Another issue is not all numbers are written out. Occasionally an anchor will tell their producers they prefer numbers written numerically, but a writer should always write numbers out in words unless their anchor specifically requests numbers written numerically.
- I also don’t like that the writer used a sentence telling viewers that Sandusky spent an entire hour explaining why he didn’t testify, but the writer never tells the viewers what he said.
What’s the difference between these two scripts?
- The first script is a VO from the top. For the second script, I chose to include new information to beef up my lead. My lead in the second script is on camera since the VO b-roll is just of Leonardo Dicaprio. Unless my video is exceptionally compelling, I personally prefer to show my anchor’s faces at the beginning of each story.
- The numbers are written out in the second script.
- The long sentence from the first script is broken into three sentences in the second script.
- There’s no reason for an exact date in the first script, so I changed it to “IN THREE WEEKS.”
- No new, now, next
- It switches tenses: “was” “hits”
- “Lands” is false present tense
Fix this script
This script is more passive than I’d prefer, but it’s more conversational. This is a situation where I choose to break the “active writing” rule so that I can write the way people talk.
Fix this script
These sentences are too long. The first sentence is not new, now, next.
Framing a Story
One of the most important things about writing is understanding the power you have to frame a story. The words you chose and the order in which you chose to use them can change how people receive your message. Especially when discussing controversial topics, be aware of how you frame the story so you don’t come off as biased.
The frame of your story is the structure that drills down on the point. Every story has the potential to take different directions depending on what the point is.
These next two stories were written from the same report, yet framed differently:
Poynter lists four ingredients to framing a story:
- News: event, new information, basic facts; it tells the reader what happened
- Context: background and history
- Impact: who benefits, who loses
- Human dimension: emotion
When you lead with the impact, your stories become more powerful. Your audience understands why they should care.
Stories usually begin with a lot of facts. You won’t use them all to tell your story. When you pick which facts to include, understand how each one will frame the story you are telling.
Murdered or killed?
Another very important aspect of writing is accurate word choice. For example, if a man is caught on camera shooting a woman to death, he killed her. You cannot call it “murder” unless he’s convicted of murder. Murder also insinuates intent. If you accidentally kill someone, you are a killer, but not necessarily a murderer.
Office or department?
Also, remember to use correct titles for military and law enforcement. For example, police officers work at the police department. But sheriff’s deputies work at the sheriff’s office. If you say “police office” or “sheriff’s department” you will get calls and comments. This could hurt your credibility and hurt your chances of getting good jobs.
Here’s why this is a common mistake: police=officer while sheriff=deputy.
Soldier or Marine?
- Army: Solider
- Navy: Sailors
- Marines: Marines *not soldiers
- Air Force: Airmen/women
- Coast Guard: Coast Guardsmen
All can be called “troops.”
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