In addition to stylistic considerations, broadcast journalists should always write to-inform- not to impress. Professor Brown cites several taboos in broad cast writing: dialects, slang, technical terms, uncommon scientific terms and professional jargon. The last two should be translated. Also, the terms former and latter should not be used in broadcast writing. The listener cannot go back to find out what they refer to.
Brown lists three points for sentence structure in broadcast copy:
- Avoid long separations of subjects and predicates. Do not write, “Jon Jones, a resident of the Fourth Ward who was elected mayor of Riverdale by the largest margin in the city’s history, will present his acceptance speech today. “Instead, write, “Riverdale’s new mayor, John Jones, will present his acceptance speech today. A resident of the Fourth Ward, Jones was elected by the largest margin in the city’s history”.
- Break up length sequences of modifiers. Do not write, “John Jones caught a well-thrown, expertly timed, 45-yard pass from Henry Smith in Friday night’s football game”. If you want to emphasize what John Jones did, write: “John Jones caught a 45-yard pass from Henry Smith in Friday night’s football game. The pass was well-thrown and expertly timed”. If you want to emphasize the action to make a punchier lead, write: “it was well-thrown and expertly timed ….that 45 yard pass John Jones caught from Henry Smith in Friday night’s football game”.
- Avoid the common newspaper structure in which the attribution is tacked on after a quotation. This is referred to as dancing attribution. Do not write, “I am going to win the election, “John Jones said. Broadcasters do not use dangling attribution for two reasons: (1) people don’t talk that way, and (2) the listener may think that the words are those of the broadcaster. The attribution should be handled like this for broadcast: John Jones said he will win the election, or in these exact words, John Jones said, “I am going to win the election”.
Professor Ben Silver of Arizona State University, a former CBS newsman, offers these additional tips:
- Write conversationally. How do you write conversationally? Talk to your typewriter or computer as you write. Talk to an audience of one or two persons when you write. Your audience may number in the thousands or even the millions, but there are rarely more than one or two people listening or watching in any one place. You are talking to one or two people driving to work. You are talking to one or two people sitting in front of the television set in the family room. The true test of broadcast writing is to read it aloud. If it sounds right, it is probably well written.
- Broadcast copy should be written in the active voice. In the active voice, the subject acts upon the object. Avoid the passive voice, in which the subject is acted upon. Passive voice: The airliner was hit by the private plane. Active voice: The private plane crashed into the airliner. Active voice is cleaner, packs more punch and uses fewer words.
Broadcast journalists need to understand the production techniques and the capabilities and limitations of the equipment used in broadcast news. In radio, reporters are expected to record and edit audiotape. Reporters in small-market television news are expected to know how to use a minicam and video editing equipment.
Learn to perform
Broadcast journalists should learn not only how to report and write but how to perform as well. After all, stories that are written are aired on news shows. Because of the emphasis on live coverage in broadcast reporting, reporters should learn to speak extemporaneously.