‘More Violence to Report’ — and More Weak Ways Not to Report

Has newswriting changed in the 20 years since Communicator (the magazine of RTNDA) ran my first monthly column? No…and yes.

No, there are no new writing rules. But yes, there are new writing tools: computers. Yet, even with this new super-swift system, we can still type only one word at a time. In fact, one letter at a time. We’re still trying to be writers, not typewriters (as typists were first called). And we’re still trying to remember our mistakes long enough to benefit from them.

Are more mistakes made on the air now than 20 years ago? No one can say for sure; these days, I hear many anchors and reporters making their share of mistakes—and then some. And I’m grateful to them. After all, those I quote in my articles are contributing to the advancement of newswriting. After I harvest their mistakes and process them, I end up with tips for writing better.

I focus on network scripts for several reasons: we all expect a network to do good work; almost everyone in the country can watch or listen to network news; and I’m able to quote network newscasts, word for word. Besides, wouldn’t you rather read the mistakes made by the mighty in midtown Manhattan than mistakes by mere mortals in Minitown? So let’s look at some network excerpts:

“The war goes on in Iraq. At least two people were wounded in Baghdad today in another suicide bomb attack, the target today, the Turkish embassy….” The war goes on? Makes you wonder how that got on. It says nothing new. And says it feebly. That’s not newswriting; that’s snoozewriting. The editor should have asked for a rewrite. How about “A suicide bomber in Baghdad attacked the Turkish embassy”?

Another network presented an even blander lead:

“And there is more violence to report. [There’s always more violence to report somewhere or other. So report it. Don’t waste our time telling us you’re going to report it.] A U-S military convoy [insert was] attacked outside of [delete of] Tikrit, hit by what witnesses say was a rocket-propelled grenade. No casualties there, but in Baghdad, one U-S soldier is dead after a roadside bomb hit his convoy.” The script should have led with the death in Baghdad, not with an encounter that resulted in no casualties. Further, to say a soldier is dead is not news or newsy. Millions of soldiers are dead. Is is a linking verb and conveys no action. A bomb killed him.

“During the month of January, the Dow and Nasdaq each hit their highest levels in more than two years.” January is a month. So we don’t say “the month of January” any more than we say “the game of baseball.” The script was broadcast in February, so the writer should have said “last month.” As for each, it should have been deleted.

A Chicago newspaper used to have three words on a pillar in the newsroom: on one side was a huge yesterday, the next side had today, the third had tomorrow. The displays reminded the staff to use those words rather than the names of days.

“Forty thousand attended the concert and…authorities say the situation could have been much worse.” Situation is a hollow word. Better: bombings. Could have been much worse is a cliché. Most crimes, accidents and disasters could have been much worse than they were.

“Michael Jackson [insert is] under protection tonight as well [he’s always protected]…bodyguards surrounding his limo like the Secret Service, after dancing through the most important day of his life.” That day of arraignment was not the most important in Jackson’s life. And who was dancing, MJ or the guards?

“The second canceled flight for Continental Airlines in as many days….” That sentence should have been canceled. You can’t use an ordinal number (second) and have it stand in for a cardinal number (two). An ordinal number lists items in order: first, second, third and so on. Cardinal numbers are one, two, three and up. Correct: “The second flight canceled by Continental Airlines in two days.”

“Apologies in advance, Senator, for a handicapping question. But how well do you think you need to do in New Hampshire?” Never apologize for a question. And never deprecate your question by calling it dumb or silly. (Interviewees and audiences can judge that for themselves.)

“Can I ask you a question?” Never ask permission. Ask your question. When someone asks me that question, I sometimes reply, “You just did.”

Interviewing is one of the weakest elements in many newscasts. For readers who skipped Journalism 101 or flunked or forgot it, here are several more tips: Ask only one question at a time; don’t ask double- or triple-barreled questions. Don’t ask long, complex questions. Don’t ask questions that can be answered yes or no. Don’t suggest answers. The art of interviewing can’t be reduced to a few tips, but those are a start. Best bet: a good book on the subject.

We return to the program in progress, a look at network scripts. Anchor:

“I looked at this memo, as you’re suggesting. It almost exclusively focuses [better: “focuses almost exclusively”] on the economy. What about Iraq?” Reporter: “That’s a good question.” Not a good response. Why? A reporter shouldn’t be praising or appraising an anchor’s questions. And that question was routine.

On another newscast, after an anchor asked a question, the correspondent said, “That’s a good question, isn’t it?” Was he uncertain or was he underlining what he thought was so good? (And sometimes a correspondent even says, “A very good question.”)

But the oddest follow-up I ran across was by an anchor who commented on his own question to a doctor: “What could this mean now for treatment of the nation’s number-one killer? A good question.” Give the anchor credit. By evaluating his own question, he saved time and cut out the middleman.

So even though 20 years have passed since writing my first column, I still find myself singing the same old song:

“Let’s not make yesterday’s mistakes tomorrow.”

The RTNDA Communicator published this column in April 2004.