For Want of a Nail—And an Editor

March 2, 2009

Many broadcast newsrooms have essential info taped to a pillar, pinned on a corkboard or scrawled on a wall: phone numbers of pizza joints, doughnut dens and Chinese takeouts.

But too many newsrooms lack another essential, one needed to ensure a first-rate newscast: a sharp copy editor. A good one delivers—not like those eateries but by fixing faulty scripts.

Every writer needs an editor, but in recent years editing in many newsrooms has been slipping. And in some places, sliding.

Now news directors have to contend with big budget blues. If a bare-bones budget won’t allow the addition or retention of a copy editor, an ND can designate someone as the copy editor, someone who takes on the assignment as an additional duty. The ND should choose someone who’s a strong writer, knows English well and is confident enough to edit even anchors.

The practice of having copy edited by any staff member who happens to be free may be tolerable in extremis. But there’s no substitute for the real thing: a qualified copy editor who knows her (or his) business.

If only a pro had edited these scripts before they were broadcast:

“‘I heard a loud boom.’ Those are the words of….” Those words come across as though the anchor was the person who heard the boom. So he should have told us upfront whom he was going to quote. Listeners can’t see quotation marks. They need—and deserve–to know at the outset who said what. Remember, we write for the ear, not the eye. Also, writers need to keep in mind a basic rule in broadcast news writing: attribution precedes assertion.

“And back in this country today, National Guard crews and ranchers stepped up the huge effort on the ground and in the air to save thousands of stranded, starving cattle snowbound by a pair of blizzards.” Buzzards come in pairs but not blizzards. Correct: two blizzards.

Also: Delete back in this country and, when it pops up, closer to home. They’re clichés and time-wasters. Better: “Colorado ranchers and National Guard crews have stepped up efforts to save thousands of cattle stranded by blizzards.” Listeners don’t need to be told that Colorado is in this country. Have you noticed that stories preceded by closer to home usually turn out to be far from your home?

“It then continued to the Northeast, where some places got 18 inches of the white stuff.” White stuff? Is that flour or dandruff? If you mean snow, say snow.

“Others trained in Pakistan are likely responsible for the attacks in London a year and a half ago, according to U-S and British intelligence.” Broadcast writers shouldn’t hang attribution at the end of a sentence. That’s not broadcast style.

“Tonight, once again, weather is making news.” So go ahead and report that news. Every subject in a newscast is making news. Also, the anchor’s use of tonight is unnecessary: viewers already know it’s night.

“And another follow-up tonight to another story that’s constantly in the news.” Start with what’s new. Another usually detracts from the newsiness of a story. Using another twice in that sentence is undesirable.

“Now to our other news. Overseas tonight, a story a lot of Americans woke up to today….” Every story on a newscast is other news. Further, that wording–woke up to–makes the news seem old.

“There is a response tonight officially from the Bush administration to Iran’s proposal for ending the standoff over its nuclear program.” There is is a dead phrase. Let’s get an action verb up high: “The Bush administration has responded to Iran’s proposal….” And let’s get rid of what’s probably a deceptive tonight. Also, let’s dump officially; could the administration respond unofficially?

“It first began in early summer.” First began? Redundant.

“He said America is at war, adding that the U-S government has an obligation to protect the American people.” Next, video of President Bush: “Our country is at war. And our government has the obligation to protect the American people.” The problem is called the echo-chamber effect. Not only did the anchor steal Mr. Bush’s thunder, but he also used some of his language, such as is at war and obligation to protect the American people.

“At the L-A auto show today, Ford unveiled a glimpse of its future.” A glimpse is a brief look; Ford didn’t unveil the car and then quickly re-veil it.

“The next item may spark some outrage, especially after all the news of late about identity theft.” That item probably wouldn’t spark outrage by anyone. But it would disappoint anyone who knows better than to suggest what listeners’ reaction might be. News of late sounds stilted. And wilted.

Yes, news directors have a lot to tend to. But their main job is to present a professional product. And to do that, they need copy editors worthy of being called professional.

© Mervin Block 2009

This article appeared in the January-February issue of Communicator, the magazine of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Mervin offers more writing tips at And still more in one of his books, Broadcast Newswriting: The RTNDA Reference Guide.