“Broadcast Writing Making News!”

You’ve all heard it.  A TV anchor says:

“Mayor saying he wants undocumented citizens to vote.” Or a reporter in the field proclaims:

“Police making point on using your seatbelt.” or, “Neighbors believing noise has to stop.”

And it’s there in the headline for this post.

What is it with some broadcast writers?  Why is there an insistence on unnatural writing in far too many newscasts?  Anchors, producers and reporters are too often guilty of being able to transform a simple sentence with a simple verb into a strange alien thing no normal human would utter.  How did we get to this place?  Is it possible to get a visa out of this “alien-English” land?  Perhaps, but it will require vigilance and we need to defend the borders with zeal from the thoughtless intruders.  Okay, no more immigration metaphors.

Broadcast writing evolved over many years from print style writing for very good reasons.  Try speaking a very long sentence without breathing.  A normal human can’t do it, which is why good broadcast writers use short sentences.  It’s also easier for a listener to retain the meaning of a short sentence.

Print material can sound formal for the ear, so broadcasters try to write the way people speak; that is conversationally.  But sounding like tabloid newspaper headlines or using phrases like those above are not the way average people talk.  If the police caught a suspected murderer in your town, would you call your friends and yell, “Slayer Caught.” Nah, that’s a tabloid headline, not normal conversation.

Scenario:  College girl goes back to her room.  She saw a fight break out between two students.  She reports the news to her roommate:  “Guys fighting in hallway.  Police breaking it up.  Going to jail, I think.”  She’d say it just like that, right?  Nah!  She’d probably say something like:  “Two guys got into a fight in the hallway.  The police came running to break it up.  They arrested the idiots and I think they’re going to jail.”

If our mother is ill we don’t say things like, “Mom making progress.”  We use correct grammar naturally.  We say, “Mom IS making progress.”  The helping verb is essential to sounding conversational.

Broadcasters who write sentences like “Mayor saying he wants undocumented citizens to vote,” can correct it simply, make sense and sound conversational in one stroke.  Use the present tense.  “The mayor SAYS he wants…”  It also saves a syllable, which helps with tight timing.  Syllables add up in a script.

I’ve noticed in live shots TV and radio reporters (and producers in news meetings) don’t ad lib this kind of awkward construction.  I would assume that’s because most of them are pretty literate and don’t speak with this kind of alien grammar in every day conversation.

Why, when facing the computer to write a script, would they step away from conversational language?  Do they think it’s a hot, unique way to write?  Is it simply sloppiness?  Does it indicate a lack of respect for the audience?  Is it all of the above?

Several years ago I asked TV reporter Kerry Sanders, following his appearance on a panel about broadcast news, why he wrote like some of the examples above.  I don’t remember his exact response, but I have noticed in the past few years in his reports for NBC he has dropped the poor grammar.  No, I’m not taking any credit for the change.  Lots of broadcast writers and coaches have been concerned about this issue.  I’m just noting it, to argue that if a highly respected, award-winning reporter can adjust in mid-career, each of us can change our writing habits with a bit of consciousness and respect for our craft.

So, reporters, anchors, producers:  Please, making progress good!

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