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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.

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.

Mind the table

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.

‘Peer’ = Member of House of Lords

In British journalistic usage, ‘peer’ usually means a member of the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament.

Technically, of course, ‘peer’ means any one of several ranks of titled nobility, which may or may not include membership in the House of Lords. But for the most part, the UK press uses the term as shorthand for the political office.