News writing: Scrap your script

February 26, 2018 11:00

By Christopher Jones-Cruise, RTDNA contributor

“Hey! You! Hey you!”

Pretty rude way to get someone’s attention isn’t it? But that’s what we do when we start a story with “Attention!” or “Listen up!” Why not start the story with a question? Alternatively, you could start it with a fact.

But now that I have you, let’s look at some common journalese you can purge from your scripts for better news writing.

We’re coming up on the pre-Academy Awards news season, and there’s one phrase that television hosts will be using that journalists should not: “generating Oscar buzz.” Not only is it a perfectly awful cliché, it’s not a factual statement – it’s hype and that’s not the business we’re in.

Longtime readers of this column know well my antipathy toward journalese, and nothing screams journalese more than phrases like:
  • “area resident,”
  • “local hospital,”
  • “tight-knit community,”
  • “in as many days,”
  • “this as/that as,”
  • “that according to”
  • “a Florida man.”
  • “on the heels of”
  • “in the wake of.”
How did we get to talking this way? What motives broadcast journalists to write and speak so strangely?

Scripts are full of clichés and misnomers. Every time I read a story about a local basketball player I can almost guarantee there is one phrase that will pop up: “hoop dreams.” And every time I read about a person with a long criminal history, I know I’ll hear him described as a “convicted felon.” “Hoop dreams” hasn’t been original in 30 years, and “convicted felon” is redundant – if one is a felon it is because one has been convicted of a felony.

Why must Mexico always be referred to as “south of the border” and England as lying “across the pond”?

Why must every report about dogs and cats include the names Fido and Fluffy? There are no dogs named Fido (except in broadcast journalism)!

John Roberts is not The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no such title. He is The Chief Justice of the United States.

It’s “Republican party,” not GOP, and we revert – we don’t revert back. A book is titled, not entitled. And it is not correct to say “PIN number” or “VIN number” because the N stands for number. Also incorrect: “ATM machine.”

And what’s happened to “Are you…,” “Did you…” and “Have you…” at the beginning of our sentences? Instead of writing “Thinking of…?,” why not write “Are you thinking of…?”? Two short words aren’t going to take up that much time, and you’ll sound better if you use them.

Journalese makes it into our scripts because we hear our colleagues speaking that way and maybe because we think it’s cool to write that way. But it does a disservice to the language and our audience and it makes you sound uneducated, derivative and just plain weird. If you’re using some of the journalese I’ve pointed out in this column, take some time to write it out of your scripts and you’ll see more-polished and more-natural language emerge.