Newswriting

My first post on writing numbers for broadcast

How numbers are written out is one of the quickest ways to determine at a glance whether copy is intended for print/online or for broadcast. Numbers in broadcast scripts, in most cases, look nothing like those you’re used to reading on the page/screen, for the simple reason that the broadcast writer tries to relieve the news announcer of as much mental effort as possible, so she can concentrate on diction and performance. In short, you want to remove all the speed bumps that inhibit the anchor’s comprehension.

Also, spelling out numbers helps to get a more accurate time calculation from computerized word- or character-counting systems.

There are a few differences of opinion among broadcasters, but here’s my handy guide to spelling out numbers. They apply only to American-style broadcast writing.

In a nutshell, you are trying to transcribe the way the figure would be spoken aloud–within these parameters.

  • Spell out ‘one’ through ‘twenty.’
  • Use digits from ’21’ through ‘999,’ except…
  • Spell out round numbers from ‘twenty’ through ‘ninety.’
  • Use the words ‘thousand,’ ‘million,’ ‘billion,’ etc. where they would be spoken: “four-million;” “21-thousand-450.”
  • For a conversational style–between 1,100 and 10,000–use the word ‘hundred’ where it would be spoken, especially for round numbers: “45-hundred;” “62-hundred-and-50.”
  • Don’t use a dollar sign ($), cent sign (¢), or percent sign (%). Spell them out as they would be spoken: “six-million dollars;” “87 cents;” “sixty-percent.”
  • Don’t use a decimal point (.). Spell it out as it would be spoken: “62-point-five million.”
  • None of the above applies to years. Write them with Arabic numerals, as usual.
  • For ordinals (“first,” “53rd”) all the same rules apply, except of course you use the ordinal abbreviations (“st,” “nd,” “rd,” “th”) where they mix with Arabic numerals.

I’ll discuss the question of precision (i.e. how accurately to represent a lengthy number) in a future post.

Thoughts on writing the lede

Thousands, no, tens of thousands of words have been written about how to write a news lede (or lead, or leed). Whole forests have been felled. So rather than recap a lot of that same information, let me suggest you get the basics by visiting some of the sites linked to in the lede sentence of this post, and instead I will just offer a few supplemental thoughts of my own.

  • If you haven’t already, go read my previous post on the use of tense in ledes.
  • Likewise, my post on names in ledes.
  • Now, in addition: A lede should always feature the ‘grabbiest’ element of the story. Usually, that means featuring the conflict (if any) expressed or implied in the narrative. Other times, it means featuring the ‘twist’ element, or the celebrity name, or some other ‘sexy’ aspect.
  • Ledes, more so than any other part of a broadcast news script, must be in the active voice, if at all possible. (This differs a bit from print, where the important thing is to have the newsmaker as the subject of the sentence, which sometimes forces you into the passive voice.)
  • Ledes should orient the audience, not disorient it. This means different things depending on the audience. In the case of OutQ News, we run a service heard nationwide, so every lede must locate the story in a state or major city. For a local broadcast news operation that does breaking news around the clock, it might instead mean always including a reference to the time the news event occurred.
  • For spot news, such as we do here, only a straight lede is suitable. Creative-type ledes, such as the delayed lede which pushes the ‘nut’ (i.e. point) of the story down several paragraphs, are a no-go.

I’ll include more thoughts on ledes in future entries on related topics–or just as ideas come to me. That’s the great thing about a blog.

Questions? Feel free to add a comment below or [encode_email email=”” display=”email me”].

Says versus said

We’ve already taken some time to talk about tense (especially as it relates to the lede), but I wanted to spend an additional minute on the special case of the verb “to say.”

In general, the preferred tense for verbs of expression (say, claim, note, etc.) in broadcast newswriting is the straight present.

20-year-old Tim Spriggs says, “We need a gay-straight alliance at St. John’s for the same reason that there are organizations for other minorities.”

This works most of the time, because most often we’re describing a recent statement that reflects the speaker’s current views (as above), or the current state of affairs.

But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes a quote or paraphrase is part of a narrative that you’ve already explicitly set in the past, using the past tense. In that case, it breaks the narrative thread for you to suddenly switch into the present tense for a quote or paraphrase.

In the actual OutQ News story from which the quote above was drawn, the two preceding sentences were this:

Some twenty students sat on the St. John’s University Great Lawn making rainbow gay rights posters. They told the New York Daily News they’ve been pushing for a campus GSA for years.

We’ve already set up an event from the preceding Friday, and any quotes or paraphrases emerge from within that narrative. Thus, we’re sort of stuck with putting everything (everything within the narrative, that is) in the past tense.

But further down in the same story, we escape the little narrative about the protest on the lawn to get a quote from a university spokesman. He spoke recently, and what he said reflects the school’s current view.

But a university spokesman says St. John’s has gone as far as it can to support gay students, considering its Catholic mission and values.

So in a nutshell: Use the present (says, notes, claims) unless they’re part of a story you’ve set in the past. In that case, stick with the tense of that story.

So-called ‘writers’ misuse ‘so-called’

Because it actually has two quite different meanings, one of them loaded, the phrase ‘so-called’ is particularly tricky to use in news copy, where we’re supposed to be neutral.

Most people know without thinking about it that ‘so-called’ has two meanings. Both are a spoken way to signal quotation marks. But the first signals jargon the listener may not be familiar with, or sometimes an imposed nickname, as in this example.

Republican Stacey Campfield is the sponsor of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill–it’s the same measure he unsuccessfully pushed for six years as a member of the state House.

The second meaning is the one that jumps to mind whenever the phrase is used without context.

The so-called ‘healing centers’ are really nothing more than a con game, preying on the desperate.

Of course, it’s this usage–loaded with sarcasm–that should be avoided in straight news copy.

But because it’s the same phrase, and the context doesn’t always make it crystal clear which meaning is intended (see my first example), it’s generally better to avoid its use altogether. Luckily, there are a few good alternatives for the neutral, jargon-introducing version.

Republican Stacey Campfield is the sponsor of what some are calling the “Don’t Say Gay” bill–it’s the same measure he unsuccessfully pushed for six years as a member of the state House.

Other alternatives that can be used (depending on the context) include “…what’s known as…” and “self-described.”

Add a comment if you think of any others.

what some are calling

There’s no contest between nolo contendere and an Alford Plea

If you write enough crime stories, you’ll eventually encounter a variety of different references to a kind of plea that stands in the no-man’s-land between guilty and not guilty (note: there is no such thing as a plea of “innocent”).

They go by various names: “no contest,” “nolo contendere,” and the “Alford Plea.” The first and second in this list mean exactly the same thing (nolo contendere is legal Latin). There are some minor technical differences between the first and last, but they are basically the same thing.

In a nutshell, these pleas do not admit guilt, but do admit that the state has enough evidence to convict. Defendants generally accept such a plea as part of a plea bargain, admitting to a lesser charge that will let them avoid the harsher punishment of the original charge.

No contest and Alford pleas differ from ordinary guilty pleas in that they are thought to offer some protection from a civil suit arising out of the crime.

In newswriting, I almost always go with “no contest,” which doesn’t involve Latin or the name of some guy nobody’s ever heard of. However, there are plenty of newsrooms where “Alford plea” is the preferred usage, so it may just be a regional thing.

Names in ledes: Famous, or not so much?

Editing stories from wire services and other outside sources often means ‘translating’ the item from the audience it was written for (Cleveland general audience, members of the military, Italians, etc.) to our particular niche audience, the LGBT community.

I’ve already mentioned a few cases where I had to learn about other systems of government, or phraseology, or currency. Another translation issue that frequently crops up writing ledes is ‘to proper noun, or not to proper noun.’

In general, you should only include the name of someone or something in the lede if it is a household name to your audience. Otherwise, it’s usually best to substitute some kind of generic descriptor and come back to the proper name in the second or third sentence.

That means, for example, that you can always use “President Obama” in the lede without further ado. But you probably wouldn’t want to use “the Human Rights Campaign” in your lede. In that case, you’d say “A gay rights group is lobbying the White House blah blah blah” in the lede, and use the group’s name in the second sentence.

I say you wouldn’t put HRC’s name in your lede. But we probably would, because virtually everyone in our LGBT audience has heard of it. On the other hand, when we’re adapting a story from the local paper in Columbia, South Carolina and it puts “State Rep. Todd Rutherford” in its lede, we’d probably ‘translate’ that by saying “a South Carolina lawmaker” in our lede, and using his proper name further down.

In some cases, a generic descriptor is too generic to put in the lede. Consider this wire service lede:

(Boston, MA) — Members of the Governor’s Council are criticizing Governor Deval Patrick’s latest selection for the Supreme Judicial Court.

Fine for a Massachusetts audience, which hears about the ‘Governor’s Council’ all the time. The Council is an elected advisory body–but that seemed too vague to put in the lede. On the other hand, ‘Massachusetts Governor’s Council’ isn’t so big a puzzler that it’s what we call a ‘show-stopper’ (causing the audience to loose the thread of the story), so I put that in the lede, and used ‘elected advisory board’ as the subject of the second sentence.

Then there’s the middle ground: a name that’s kinda-sorta familiar to your audience, is to use the name in the lede, but add a descriptor before it. So: not just “Silvio Berlusconi” as the AFP dispatch from Rome might have it, but “Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.” Likewise, “California Governor Jerry Brown,” “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” “Apple C-E-O Steve Jobs,” and so on.

Who said that?

We’ve already discussed a few of the ways in which direct quotes are used differently in broadcast scripts from the way they’re handled in print. We’ve talked about dangling attributions, signifying the start of a direct quote and paraphrasing.

Another important difference is the necessity to restate — frequently — who’s being quoted. This is very simply because listeners have no quotation marks to tell them when a quote begins and ends. As I mentioned before, the best way to signal the start of a quote is with a slight pause, or with a phrase like “in his words.” Don’t use the word “quote.” Likewise, we don’t use “unquote” to end a quotation — that’s even hokier than using “quote” at the beginning.

Instead, we rely on the modern audience’s default assumption that direct quotes in broadcast news stories are short — one or two sentences at most. This means that for quotes longer than one long sentence or two short sentences, you must re-identify the speaker.

WRONG: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

Using long quotes works even better if you reduce the number of times you use the word “says.” For example, because the first sentence is fairly short and pithy, you can replace one attribution with the word “adding”.

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community,” adding, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

(Of course, in this example, the second sentence is on the long side, which makes the “adding” formulation less than ideal.)

Another way to prune back the use of “says” is to use the paraphrase that’s really a direct quote.

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe calls this “a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

Don’t use the quote-ees name every time, nor a pronoun (e.g. “he”) every time. Instead, ping-pong back and forth between the last name and a pronoun.

The last point I should make is that it’s best not to overuse direct quotes in broadcast copy. Again, broadcast isn’t print. Ideally, you should have actuality (i.e. “sound bites”). If you don’t limit your direct quotes to only the pithiest stuff, and paraphrase the rest.

BEST: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe calls this “a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says he’s proud of the out candidates who are “stepping up to run for office,” and of his group’s role in backing them.

Link of the Week: AP Broadcast Handbook

This is a first for Link of the Week: a link to the dead-tree version of a book you should buy. About one-third of the Associated Press Broadcast Handbook is an extremely concise and well-written guide to broadcast newswriting (kind of like this blog–ahem–but organized into a logical sequence instead of blasted all over the map in no particular order). The second part is a wide ranging style guide similar to the AP Stylebook for print. It contains hundreds of dictionary-style entries that prescribe the right way to refer to well-known companies and groups on second reference, what to call minority and handicapped people, and lots of other writing style questions. Many newsrooms rely on the handbook as the authority on “house style” questions that have not already been settled internally.

Group names on second reference

One question frequently asked by my interns and trainees is how to refer to organizations ‘for short’ once their full names have been established (“on second reference,” in Associated Press parlance). Given the nature of the news we handle — gay-related — a lot of organization names come up, with varying degrees of familiarity to our audience and to a general audience.

There’s often a temptation to use a group’s initials on second reference: The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force would, for example, become “NGLTF” once its full name is established. But I think this is generally bad practice in broadcast writing unless and only unless the initials are already familiar to your listeners. So, for instance, I think it’s okay to call the National Association for the Advance of Colored People the “N-double-A-C-P” (note how ‘double’ is spelled out here) on second reference. In fact, the initials are so familiar you could probably get away with “N-double-A-C-P” on first reference. Likewise, the United Nations can be called the “UN” even on first reference. And for our audience, the letters “HRC” are synonymous with the Human Rights Campaign (less so than with Hillary Rodham Clinton), so we always refer to them by their initials on second reference.

But usually the best practice is to refer to a less-familiar group by the part of its name that denotes it as a group. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists would be “the association” on second ref. In my earlier example, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is called “the Task Force” after the first reference.

There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule of thumb. Unfortunately for us, there are many groups in the gay community whose names don’t include that group-denoting word: Empire State Pride Agenda, Basic Rights Oregon, National Stonewall Democrats, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and Lambda Legal, to name a few. The answer in these cases is a mixed bag. For the first two, we generally use the groups’ full names on each and every reference — a particular pain in the case of the long-named Empire State Pride Agenda. National Stonewall Democrats is called just “Stonewall Democrats” on second reference. Gay Men’s Health Crisis is called “GMHC” on second reference; its initials are familiar enough to our audience. And Lambda Legal is known by its nickname for short: “Lambda.”

There are also cases where the name makes a tidy acronym (initials which can be pronounced as a word — only!) In these cases, it’s okay to use that acronym on second reference (as long as it’s not too much of a puzzler). So, for example, both the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders are referred to as “GLAD” (or “GLAAD,” pronounced the same) on second reference.

To sum up: For unfamiliar group names, use the group-denoting part of the name on second reference. For familiar names, it’s more of a mixed bag. Use whatever nickname is most familiar to your audience, or at least the nickname the group uses for itself.

Attribution, attribution, attribution

An essential part of journalism is saying how or from whom we know what we know — in other words, attribution. This means that the source for every fact or assertion must be clear to the audience. This doesn’t mean reporters have to tell “who says” in every sentence. But it’s vital to establish the source for a set of facts in a way that is clear and unambiguous.

WRONG: This week, Darryl Hopkins told the story from his point of view. Clark Rockefeller told him the person hanging on to the vehicle was a “gay friend” that he wanted to lose.

RIGHT: This week, Darryl Hopkins told WBZ-TV the story from his point of view. He said Clark Rockefeller told him the person hanging on to the vehicle was a “gay friend” that he wanted to lose.

The differences between the versions of this (randomly selected) paragraph seem minor at first glance — just a few words. But they convey very important information that gives credit where it’s due (to WBZ, in this case) and more importantly, helps the audience judge the credibility of the assertions. How do we know what Clark Rockefeller allegedly told Darryl Hopkins? Because Hopkins said so. The audience can then judge the claim on the basis of whether it thinks Hopkins is credible, a publicity hound, a guy trying save his own neck, or whatever.

So when in doubt, attribute, attribute, attribute. There should be at least one source attribution per story (more if you used more), and one for each controversial assertion in the story (i.e. every statement in the script that someone might quarrel with). Generally speaking, the place to put your source attribution is early on in the script, connected to a controversial assertion, or at least with some newsy, up-to-date fact that you got from the source.

No mind reading allowed

While we’re on the subject of “says” and similar verbs of expression…

In addition to all the silly synonyms I listed in my previous post on the subject, it’s also wise–journalistically–to avoid words that imply you have mind reading skills and actually know what the speaker is thinking. That means “thinks,” “feels,” “believes,” “understands,” and so on are O-U-T, out. If the subject says he feels relieved… Then. Say. That.

WRONG: Senator Cornwall feels the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

BETTER: Senator Cornall says he feels the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

PROBABLY BEST: Senator Cornwall says the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

In some cases, where you really are dealing with Senator Cornwall’s interior, emotional state, the middle form, “says he feels,” is a better choice than just plain “says.”

Senator Cornwall says he thinks both candidates have turned in disappointing performances.

Consider this practice another form of accurate attribution… a subject we’ll come to soon.

Say “says”

One of the imperatives of good writing that’s drilled into beginner’s heads is not to repeat the same word or phrase too often. If a sentence has the word “ability” in it, the next sentence shouldn’t use the same word. I agree that this is generally good practice. But I make a big exception for all forms of the word “says” — especially in the case of broadcast writing.

It’s tempting to cook up a bunch of synonyms to avoid saying “said” over and over again: “He laughed,” “He announced,” “He revealed,” “He exclaimed,” “He chuckled,” “He sighed,” “He intoned,” and so on and on. Don’t.

Unless you have a synonym for “said” that is absolutely on-point and accurate, that just cries out to be used instead of “said” because it is just right… then use “said” instead. Feel absolutely free to formulate a paragraph that uses “says” over and over again.

Governor Smith says the state treasury is nearly empty. He says tax and fee income has “totally failed” to keep up with expenditures. Smith says he plans to call a special session of the legislature to deal with the state’s financial crisis.

As you can see from this example, “says” is such a ‘null’ word that — as long as there’s enough going on in the story — its repetition will bother absolutely nobody. Also notice that it’s good practice to restate the speaker’s name once in a while, to create variety in the shape of the sentence, and so that you don’t give listeners a chance to actually forget who’s talking.

We’re done in by the passive voice

It’s nothing new for editors and journalism teachers to inveigh against the use of the passive voice in newswriting. In fact, that’s an understatement. Such exhortations are commonplace, trite, and boring; they’re the first chapter in every writing guide. And still, the passive voice is everywhere in news copy. I fix a dozen passive voice sentences a day in copy from our stringers, writers and wire services, and still some get by me. So here is my brief harangue on the subject.

First, a definition. The passive voice is a verb form in which the subject of the sentence is the thing being acted upon, instead of the thing doing the acting.

John’s ice cream is being eaten.

…instead of…

Sally is eating John’s ice cream.

As these examples demonstrate, there are two basic problems with the passive voice in newswriting (or really, in any kind of writing).

  1. The first is simply the stylistic fact that the passive voice makes for a less, well, active sentence. Passive voice sentences are just boring and flat, especially in constructions longer than the examples above. In large part, that’s because the action described is hard to visualize. Why? That brings us to the second point.
  2. The passive voice often disguises who is performing the action described. In the passive voice example above, we have no idea who is eating John’s ice cream. We can’t visualize the sentence except with a kind of blank space where “Sally” goes. (One could add that information: “John’s ice cream is being eaten by Sally.” But that’s just a longer and more awkward way of saying what would be brief and to-the-point in the active voice).

This is the journalistic problem with the passive voice. Deliberately or accidentally, it hides who is doing what to whom, and that’s bad journalism.

Sometimes (rarely) the passive voice is a necessary evil, when the ‘actor’ in the sentence is unknown or totally irrelevant.

Forty women and children were found dead in a remote Nigerian village this morning.

If this came to me from my wire service and I didn’t know who found them, I’d be kind of stuck with the lede. But oftentimes, the passive voice can be fixed with a resort to one of the all-purpose ‘actors.’ Thus,

Residents of the Shaw neighborhood are being urged to boil their water until further notice.

…can easily be made active voice.

City officials are urging Shaw residents to boil their water until further notice.

“Officials” are, by far, the most beloved generic ‘actors.’ “A spokesman,” “police,” and “the administration” (as appropriate) are also very popular. (Comment if you can think of any others. I’m momentarily stumped.)

As I implied earlier, beginning newswriters seem to crank out passive voice sentences left and right. But with practice (or enough negative feedback from your editor), it’s possible to develop very sensitive antennae that will ring an alarm every time you write or read something in the passive voice. And when that alarm rings, it’s time to ask “Why is that line in the passive voice? Is it because who did what to whom is being hidden?” (Catch the hidden passive voice sentence in the forgoing paragraph and win a prize.)

Their system vs. ours

I’d like to say a few words about the differences between parliamentary democracies, such as they have in the UK, Canada, and most other places in the world, and presidential republics like we have in the US. I’d like to say a few words, but it’s pretty hard, because the differences are many and complex — worthy of the sort of lengthy essay one might find on Wikipedia.

But because the topic comes up constantly in my work (reporting on gay-related bills passing through foreign parliaments) and because college poli sci classes seem to do an awfully bad job of explaining this stuff to students who become my interns, I want to highlight just a couple of the principal differences between the two systems — in very brief outline.

The main difference between the two systems of government is that parliamentary democracies have no separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. That is, the majority party (or coalition of parties) in Parliament is the government, and foreign newspapers use the terms “the government” and “majority party(s)” interchangeably. Typically, the government is led by a Prime Minister with the support of a bunch of cabinet ministers* (in charge of defense, foreign relations, health services and so on), all of whom are also voting members of parliament.

The members of the cabinet are usually referred to as “front-benchers,” because that’s where they sit in the Parliament. The minority or “opposition” parties (or “opposition coalition”) usually assemble a team of leaders or experts on all the cabinet ministries, who are referred to as “shadow ministers” or “critics” (Shadow Health Minister or Health Critic, etc.) Because of their seating location in Parliament, these opposition leaders are collectively referred to as “back-benchers.”

I could go on and on about how these differences affect the political system, how bills pass, and so forth (although there’s considerable variation from country to country), but I’ll stop here. I’ll probably add other pertinent observations later, as they arise in my work.

*I hope it goes without saying that in the context of a government, “minister” does not refer to a member of the clergy. A government minister in a parliamentary system corresponds to a cabinet secretary in the US system: (Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Health and Human Services, etc.)

Link of the Week: Grammar, not gramma

With almost every entry on this blog I toss around grammar jargon like they’re working overtime at the factory. Most of it is stuff you probably thought you were done with when you graduated middle school. But, oh no, here it is again… and related to something you should know in order to make a living in newswriting. I bet you didn’t count on that when you flushed your mental cache around the time you graduated from college.

So for those who need a very condensed but readable guide to basic English grammar–technical terms and all–here’s what I use to double check my hazy recollections: Grammar Topics.

There are a thousand similar pages on the web. I happen to like this one (from the University of Victoria, British Columbia web site) because it’s very concise, correct (as far as I can tell), and from an academic (i.e. reasonably authoritative) source.