Networks’ Mistakes May Make You a Better Writer

Making a mistake is not a sin; it is a sin, though, for us not to learn from our mistakes. But how do we know when we’ve made a mistake unless someone tells us about it—and keeps us from making the same mistake twice.

If you’re like me, you wonder why mistakes on newscasts aren’t caught by an editor before they get on the air. Or caught by a producer. Or an anchor. Why leave it to listeners?

When a mistake gets on the air, other people in the newsroom—and in other newsrooms—probably think that what they’ve just heard is correct. And, sooner or later, they might make the same mistake. (As Voltaire put it, “Error flies from mouth to mouth, from pen to pen, and to destroy it takes ages.”)

So let’s look at a few mistakes and see how we can learn from other people’s mistakes. These mistakes were broadcast by the three network evening newscasts:

“It was August in April and then some today in the eastern half of the United States. Sweatbands came out as bands of hot temperatures [heat causes high temperatures, not hot temperatures] set records in many cities.” Sweatbands? They may come out for many joggers and bikers, but most people never wear them. On a weather map, a band is a narrow strip where temperatures are the same or similar. But most listeners probably wouldn’t instantly grasp that use of bands. And if they can’t get it instantly, the script doesn’t have enough bandwidth. Besides, the coupling of bands and sweatbands leaves me cold.

“This is one of the oldest ones on the books, the home-repair scam, but it remains an enormous problem, especially for the elderly and the parasites who prey on them.” The parasites don’t have a problem. They’re crooks, right? So how is scamming a problem for them? The scamsters are causing problems for the oldsters.

“At the White House, the President’s national security team met behind closed doors.” Behind closed doors? Would you expect the national security team to meet in a public place? Whenever I hear that cliché, I suspect the writer attended Door college—in one door and out the other.

“The government’s latest map of U-S drought conditions shows some improvement, at least for now, in parts of the Southwest and Midwest.” A drought is a condition. So insert the before U-S and delete conditions. At least for now is unneeded. An improvement has occurred, no matter what happens next.

“As in the Philippines, there are no plans for U-S troops to play a combat role….” How would any reporter, even one who covers the Pentagon, be able to say there are no combat plans? Better: “The Pentagon says it has no plans for U-S troops to play a combat role.”

“In the upper Midwest tonight, it’s all about the power of sandbags, the weapon of choice against floodwaters from the Red River.” Power? I’d call it strength. Never in the upper Midwest (or anywhere else) is it all about sandbags. And since when are sandbags weapons? Of choice? I believe in freedom of choice, but of choice has become a trendy (and wordy) way of saying “chosen.” Or “preferred.” Have you ever heard anyone use of choice in a conversation—say, “Gazpacho is my soup of choice”? Or “Words are my weapons of choice”?

“Hope you have a good dinner this evening. [Please don’t eat up time to fret about my meal.] Coming up on the broadcast this week among our other reportings, billions of dollars in….” Reportings? That’s what the man said. No such noun exists. Reports does the job. And why mention other unidentified stories at all?

“American Catholics are watching closely tonight as one dozen cardinals head to Rome for an extraordinary series of meetings at the Vatican this week.” Why are they watching closely tonight? The meetings haven’t even begun. Doughnuts come by the dozen, not cardinals.

“So far this year, inflation is running three percent—low, but twice as much as last year.” Much should be high.

“Coming soon is the pitless, personal-sized watermelon.” Plums and peaches have pits (or stones); watermelons have seeds. And seeds aren’t pits. But that script is.

“They say he hasn’t been hurt by this, and neither he nor the Republican party will be hurt going forward.” Going forward? As soon as the script says will or is going to, we know the script is talking about the future, the time from this moment on. Careful writers don’t go along with going forward. You don’t say that in real life, do you? Or hear real people who do?

“Some royal watchers believe that the whole nation will be tuning in to their television on Tuesday for the Queen Mother’s funeral, a passing of an era that many Britons, it seems, are taking in stride.” The end of an era? When I hear that kind of nonsense, it goes in one era and out the other. Even when Rosie O’Donnell soon gave up her talk show, an anchor at the same network called it “the end of an era.” Yet I’m hoping for a new era: one in which writers give up clichés.

As for the Queen Mum’s death, how can a reporter in London tell that many Britons are taking it in stride–whatever that cliché means? Anyway, wouldn’t you rather hear about those not taking it in stride, people not keeping a stiff upper lip? Taking it in stride is so worn, so weary, so old and so poor that it should have been buried in a pauper’s grave long ago. Also, the reporter was being repetitious: he had used the same sentence, word for word, on the network’s morning newscast two days earlier.

“This morning [why call attention to the age of the news?], less than two weeks before his case went to trial, the millionaire changed his plea to guilty to 20 counts of product tampering and mislabeling the drugs sold to dozens of customers, charges that could have put him behind bars for 200 years.” The sentence is far too long: 45 words. And three numbers in one sentence are too many. Charges can’t put anyone anywhere; convictions can. After the defendant pleaded guilty (and the judge accepted the plea), the charges became offenses. A judge could sentence him to 200 years, but no one on earth could keep him there that long.

Better: “The millionaire changed his plea to guilty today—less than two weeks before he was to go on trial. He pleaded guilty to 20 counts of product tampering and mislabeling the drugs he sold to customers. He faces many years in prison.”

As annoying as each of those mistakes is, we shouldn’t be discouraged. After all, as someone once said: “Things could be worse. Suppose your errors were counted and published every day, like those of a baseball player.”

The RTNDA Communicator published this column in March 2003.