In American British journalistic prose, to “table” a bill, amendment or other measure is to offer or propose it. But in British American usage, to “table” a measure means to suspend consideration (i.e. to “shelve” it). In other words, “table” has more or less opposite meanings in the UK and America. Many an editorial ship has crashed on this particular shoal. Beware, and make sure that when you see this word, you know whether your source is British or American.
April 6, 2008
March 30, 2008
Because the lede to a broadcast story (or any news story, for that matter) must hook the audience immediately, it needs immediacy.
In print and sometimes in broadcast feature stories, it’s possible to, as we say, ‘delay the lede,’ putting a grabby bit of character or narrative right up front. In that case, the what’s-new, who-what-when-where-why-how part of the story (called the ‘nut graf’ — really!) comes later in the prose.
But on my side of the street, where we do only spot news, the ‘nut’ must always come first. That is, spot news always ledes with the most interesting, compelling way of expressing what’s new-new-new about this story.
One tool for conveying immediacy that says to the audience, “This is new! Pay attention!” is the choice of verb tense. In general, you want to lede with the tense that gives the strongest feeling of immediacy consistent with what makes logical sense given the facts.
So here is my rough-and-ready guide to lede tenses, in descending order of preference. As previously noted, these are rules of thumb; your mileage may vary.
- Present progressive tense: “Police are rounding up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
This tense says the news event is happening right now; that’s as current as it gets. Notice that we rarely use the simple present tense (“Police round up twenty-five members…”); that would sound too much like a newspaper headline — telegraphic and just plain weird. Note also that the future tense is rarely used in a news lede (“Police will round up twenty-five members…”), because spot news is not much in the prognostication business. We leave that to tarot card readers and psychics.
- Present perfect tense: “Police have rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
This is appropriate for something that happened in the recent past, and whose momentum, if you will, extends into the present. In the example, police just ’rounded up’ these alleged (always ‘alleged’) criminals, and still have them in custody.
- Simple past tense: “Police rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang last week.”
Use this tense when the event you’re describing happened at some point in the somewhat more distant past, and is over and done with. This is not the tense you really want to use, as it conveys a feeling of stale, old news. If a week has gone by and most of those gang members have already bailed out of jail, it’s probably the safe choice. But in many cases, so long as the event is in the recent-ish past and the situation thereafter has been more-or-less static, you can use the present perfect tense in your lede, then specifically name the day the event happened (using the simple past tense) further down in your script.
I’ve seen newswriters use all kind of other weird tenses in their ledes (e.g. the past perfect: “Police had rounded up twenty five members…”; or past progressive: “Police were rounding up…”), but as a rule, you want to stick to these three unless you have a good reason and understand what you’re doing.
One final note: I called this specifically a guide to lede tenses for a reason. Tense choice within the main body of the story is likely to differ depending on the narrative needs of the story. Do not feel that because your lede is in a particular tense, the rest of the story must follow.
March 23, 2008
I’ve laid out some kinda complicated rules about how to handle quotes in broadcast copy, but really, it can be simplified to this:
- In general, you should use exact quotes sparingly (don’t be promiscuous about them; limit yourself only to the best and pithiest quotes)
- When you do use exact quotes, treat them as if they were paraphrases.
Governor Fletcher said, “Kentucky has not discriminated against the gay community.”
This follows the rules I’ve laid out for quote handling. But read aloud it seems stilted and awkward. The following much smoother and more natural:
Governor Fletcher said that Kentucky has “not discriminated against the gay community.”
The difference between these two is very subtle (really, just a “that” versus a comma). But syntactically it’s all the difference in the world.
Note that in the second case, it would not necessarily be clear to the audience that they’re hearing an exact quote, which makes this approach unsuitable for cases where the audience really needs to know that.
In such instances, you’ll need to signal an exact quote, as discussed previously:
Over the weekend, in the words of a Beshear campaign spokeswoman, the “Fletcher camp hit the panic button.”
Cody Castgna’s lawyer said, “Unfortunately, I mean I hate to admit this on behalf of my client, but it’s a prostitution case. And frankly my client didn’t offer it or solicit it.”
In the second example, we didn’t use a ‘flag phrase’ like “in his words.” But it’s immediately clear it’s an exact quote because the speaker uses the first person right at the beginning of the sentence.
February 28, 2008
One more thing about converting foreign currencies to local in news stories: Sometimes you can just convert the foreign amount and treat it as if it were local money.
Soon Yen pays about a dollar-sixty to ride the bus into town every day.
In other situations, where you’re talking about large cash amounts that would obviously have been transacted in the foreign currency, it’s wise to subtly signal that you’ve converted.
Britain’s Royal Air Force has settled an anti-gay discrimination lawsuit, offering a payout to a former sergeant major worth more than 100-thousand dollars.
The use of the word “worth” indicates that the settlement was equivalent to $100,000, rather than $100,000 in crisp greenbacks. By the way, you can also use “equivalent to” with the same effect.
February 7, 2008
Our policy here at Sirius OutQ News is to signal a verbatim quote by using the word ‘quote’ only as an absolute last resort. It’s a mutation of the old newspaper reporter’s practice of barking copy, punctuation and all, down the phone line to the rewrite desk. It’s therefore corny and print-y; it impedes listener comprehension; and it’s miles from the conversational style we’re trying to achieve. Don’t do it.
There are several good alternatives to the word ‘quote.’ In most cases, you can just do without it. Instead, signal the quote through a tiny pause and change to a slightly higher, more stressed intonation. That’s usually all an audience needs to know it’s an exact quote. And this can work — in fact, works better — even when the quote contains a reference to ‘I’ or ‘me.’
However, in some cases, your quote will contain something controversial that you’ll want to ensure the audience doesn’t mistake for coming from your newsreader’s lips. In that case, use a verbal flag such as “in his words,” or “she described as.” Here’s an example from one of this week’s newscasts:
Transcripts of an audio recording submitted as evidence show Cuadra telling Corrigan the murder – in his words – “made me feel better inside.”
The more vivid the quote, the stronger your signal should be that it is an exact quote:
Jones’s exact words were “You’ll never get me, copper.”
Only in the most searingly hot-button of cases should it be necessary to go beyond these devices and actually use the Q-word. Even then, you should try to think of the way you might put it in conversation. For example:
After the jury was dismissed, Smith leaned over to his lawyer and said within earshot of reporters — quoting now — “I did kill her.”
And that really should be your touchstone when handling most style questions like this. Just ask yourself, “How might I express this in conversation?” It won’t be the right answer every time, but it will be right most of the time.
February 4, 2008
When citing a foreign wire service, I find it best to use an English language reference. Sometimes that’s the agency’s name in translation. “Agence France-Presse” (AFP) becomes “the French Press Agency,” and “Deutsche Presse Agentur” (DPA) becomes “the German Press Agency.” Or sometimes it’s the name in the original language, with an English description tacked on: “The Xinhua state-controlled news service,” in a story where it’s already established we’re talking about China.
And note that, as in the last example, it’s important to indicate with a word or two (‘state-controlled’, ‘Christian conservative’, etc.) any possible bias a news service (or other source) might have.
February 1, 2008
The Okeechobee School District has asked federal courts for a summary judgment on whether a Gay-Straight Alliance should be allowed to meet on the Okeechobee High School campus.
–Port St. Lucie News, 30 Jan 2008
So what the heck is a ‘summary judgment,’ anyway?
‘Summary judgment’ is the term for a ruling in a civil lawsuit made by a judge, without a trial to establish facts. The premise is that there are no disputed material facts in the case, and that all the issues are legal ones. Obviously, the side that makes a motion for summary judgment wants the judgment to be in their favor.
If both sides and the judge agree to summary judgment, it can be a huge time-saver in a case. These motions appear frequently in constitutional or civil rights suits.
Oh, by the way, I think the newspaper lede* above is absolutely terrible, and not just because it uses legal jargon (‘summary judgment’) without explanation. It also does what you should never do in a lede: instead of highlighting the conflict, it hides it. You would never know from this lede that the school district is adamantly, virulently opposed to having a Gay-Straight Alliance.
*(that’s broadcast jargon for ‘lead’, spelled weirdly so as not to accidentally get pronounced as ‘led’)
Intern Mallory just asked me, “What’s another word for ‘study’? I just used it three times in three sentences.”
How about ‘report’ or ‘analysis’? ‘Survey’ sometimes works, too, if that’s mainly what it was.
January 29, 2008
Each week, I’m going to offer up one of the many web sites I’ve found over the years to assist me in research, fact-checking, or writing. Some will be gems you’ve never seen or heard of. Others will be commonplace sites everybody goes to, but for which I’ve found a special use or hidden feature that I’ll share.
For my inaugural ‘Link of the Week,’ here’s one of the best all-around websites offering guidance on radio newswriting and delivery: Newscript.com
The site is written and maintained by Ohio radio newsman Michael Meckler. It’s a tribute to the good, old fashioned broadcast newswriting values of clarity, simplicity and concision. The site covers much of the same territory that I aim to discuss eventually, but for those who want an excellent, brief crash course in radio news, there’s no better place to start than this.
January 28, 2008
There’s one other way to avoid appositives that I forgot to mention.
You can make the noun and its description the subjects of two consecutive sentences, like so:
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says he’s now enjoying his retirement.
John Shalikashvili left the top spot at the Pentagon in 1997…
This works because English is highly asyndetic. That means the sentence structure carries much of the meaning, and so fluent speakers of the language understand how words, phrases and sentences relate to each other without the help of a lot of conjunctions and connective words. Thus it’s clear the subject of the second sentence, John Shalikashvili, is the same person as the subject of the first sentence, the Joint Chiefs chairman. (And incidentally, that previous sentence works just as well without the word ‘Thus,’ which is my point.)
Moreover, we’ll come back to ‘asyndetic’ when we talk about why you can completely do without ‘moreover.’
UPDATE: I am informed by a few authorities (i.e. broadcast writing books) I’ve consulted that this consecutive-sentences trick is a print construction and therefore bad. Listeners would assume the “Joint Chiefs chairman and Shalikashvili are two different people. Let’s just say I disagree, but concede there are some circumstances where the writer’s intention might be ambiguous (which is bad). You should be aware of that as you write, and use your judgment.
January 27, 2008
It’s often said about broadcast writing that it should sound conversational, but what usually goes unsaid are all the little technical things and thoughtful phrasing that go into giving written prose the feel of conversation. Those techniques will be a large part of my emphasis here.
One such important ‘rule’ (in quotes because, once well understood, rules can be treated as guidelines and cheerfully broken to achieve a desired effect) is avoiding appositives. An appositive is a word or phrase, set off by commas, that further describes the noun it follows. For example:
John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is now enjoying his retirement.
Appositives are incredibly common in print newswriting, but in my opinion, they should be incredibly rare in broadcast writing. The reason is, quite simply, that they are incredibly rare in conversational speech and a big red flag that what you’re hearing from your radio or TV was really intended to be read, not spoken.
So how to avoid them? The most common technique in broadcast writing is to turn an appositive into an adjective phrase:
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili is now enjoying his retirement.
With short phrases up to three or four words (‘Dayton fire chief George Smith says…’) this works very well, but in longer cases such as our example (seven words) it can be very awkward and, well, unconversational. So there are a couple of other options. One is to trim some syllables out of the phrase, if possible:
Joint Chiefs chair John Shalikashvili is now enjoying his retirement.
That works pretty well. But in cases where, for whatever reason, I can’t prune my description, I like to break it off into its own sentence.
John Shalikashvili is former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s now enjoying his retirement.
Even better (if time allows) would be a version that recasts the tense and adds a little information to eliminate the word ‘former.’
John Shalikashvili was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the mid-nineties. He’s now enjoying his retirement.
In both these cases, the phrasing seems pretty awkward when read in print. But try them aloud: you’ll see they sound much more natural than an appositive or even a long adjective phrase.
Note that this two-sentence technique is an exception to my ‘rule’ about blah to-be verbs, which I’ll expound on at a later date.
January 25, 2008
One of the most common problems I see in newbie broadcast newswriting, especially among those who have prior print newswriting experience, is the dreaded ‘dangling attribution.’ That’s where the who-said part of a quote ‘dangles’ off the end. For example:
“That’s the last time we shoot first and ask questions later,” said Sheriff Williams.
This is one of those rare never, never, nevers in broadcast writing, for two simple reasons. First, it isn’t conversational. No one in the history of ever has used this construction in conversation (okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much). The second, related reason is that it makes it hard for the audience to understand who’s talking, the newsreader or the person being quoted.
The correct formulation for broadcast writing is:
Sheriff Williams said, “That’s the last time we shoot first and ask questions later.”
This way, the audience understands who’s talking when they hear the quote.
There’s an additional issue as to the best way to signal that this is an exact quote, or whether that’s even necessary, which I’ll get to in a future entry.