Better Than a Post-Mortem: A Thorough Pre-Mortem

Even a short script needs a long, hard look. So let’s look:

“An East Side woman is dead after being shot in the back at an A-T-M machine. [Billions of people are dead, so saying someone is dead is decidedly un-newsy. Is conveys no action. Is just is. And usually, what comes after after in a lead should go before after. The writer did type ATM correctly as A-T-M, which is how scripts present names that don’t need spelling out: A-F-L-C-I-O, C-I-A, F-B-I, N-double-A-C-P, Y-M-C-A. They’re hyphenated so anchors will read out each letter separately. ATM stands for automated (not automatic) teller machine; “ATM machine” is redundant. Call it either an ATM or a cash machine.]

The script resumes:

“Police say two men approached the woman from behind at an A-T-M machine on Broadway [where on Broadway?]. Police say [avoid starting two sentences in a row that way] they [the police?] strangled her, then shot her in the back [I heardja the first time].

“She died on the way to the hospital. [If she had really been strangled, she would have been dead before she was shot.]

“Police say [don’t keep saying, “Police say”; do it some other way] the woman’s daughter was in her car the whole time. [Whose car? Did the daughter see the attack? Did she get a description or a license number?]

“Police are still investigating.” That’s a shocker. Would you expect them to drop the case? Yes, police are investigating, but we should be more informative: perhaps “Police are examining the surveillance camera.” Or “Police are looking for a late-model green van with Alaska license plates.”

And that newsroom needs some looking into: who was the victim? Name? Age? Occupation? If the police can’t or won’t say, the writer should say so. Where was the ATM? In a lobby? Any witnesses? What time was the crime? Was it in the daylight? (Don’t leave listeners in the dark.)

Another script that needs another look:

“We’ve all heard of firefighters rescuing kittens from treetops. [Yes, we have–too many times]. Today, some came [they went] to help a horse [a horse in a tree? A horse chestnut?]

Voice-over: “This is [avoid this is in a VO] Todd, a 23-year-old horse that wandered out of his corral on Jones Road in South Coventry, Chester County, late last night.

“Todd walked halfway across the swimming pool cover when it ripped, and in he went. It took volunteers from the Ridge fire company more than an hour to get the shivering animal [better: horse] out.” Was the pool empty? Was it on the owner’s property? Who is the owner? How many feet did the horse fall? Was it taken to a horspital?

Another script that needs another look:

“Breaking news. [Probably the most abused, misused and overused terms in broadcasting.] A spectacular [also overdone] fire on the city’s North Side tonight.

Voice-over: “Firefighters battled the blaze [No one says, “A blaze destroyed the building”; say fire] in a vacant building in the 4600 block of Newberry Terrace. The building was fully involved [that’s fire-chief lingo; use plain English] when they arrived. Firefighters cordoned off the area [isn’t that what the police do?] for extra protection {extra?] They’re not sure how it [the fire] started. No one was hurt.”

Ordinarily, I’d want to know the size of the building, especially the number of floors. Had it been a store, garage, factory, warehouse, apartment building, or what? But in this case I have only one question: why did someone trumpet as breaking news a fire in a vacant building, a fire that apparently didn’t endanger anyone (except the firefighters). The past tense in “No one was hurt” suggests the fire has already been put out. So the news is not breaking. And all that ballyhoo leaves me put out.

Another short script that got short shrift:

“…police charge a man with posing as a fake cop. [Two charges against the writer: the man was not charged with posing as a fake policeman; he was charged with posing as a real one. Further, the writer’s lead is posing as the present tense. In fact, it’s the false present. In a tease or a headline, the present tense is standard. The present can also be used in place of the past tense with verbs of communication: “The governor says he’s going to visit the zoo.” But in that script, the writer is presenting the lead under what the law calls false pretenses.

Voice-over: “Police say they caught Stephen Poynter Junior parked in this phony cop car. [Avoid this in a VO] Take a look [please don’t tell me what to do, especially when I’m already watching]: the car has flashing lights, a siren and an eight-thousand-dollar police-type laptop computer system.” A system? The script raises many questions: who is that guy? Was he in uniform? What had he been doing in that rig? Any victims? Of what?

An even shorter script falls short:

“Detroit Pistons superstar Grant Hill is waking up a married man this morning. [Sounds as if someone had slipped him a Mickey in Vegas and hustled him off to a wedding chapel.] Hill married R-and-B singer Tamia Washington in a private ceremony at an undisclosed location. [When?] The couple is on their honeymoon right now.” Is they? Should be “the couple are.” If the writer thought “couple is” is correct, he should have been consistent and said (wrongly) the couple is on its, not their, honeymoon. (But it takes two to tangle.)

As for double-entendres, newswriters need to be able to spot—and untangle—them, like this one at the end of a short (but wordy) script:

“The matter, however, has now been resolved in a Los Angeles court [better: “But the matter has now been resolved….”]—with both parties agreeing to drop their suits.” Which leaves us with an image of both parties in their shorts. Actually, only the writer came up short.

Advice to windy writers: think longer, write shorter.

RTNDA Communicator published this column in April 2000.