I have been emailing back and forth with a former TV journalist, who noticed a trend. I am guessing you will notice the same trend once I bring it up here. Verbs have largely disappeared from news copy. Now, I know many of you will dog me for this and go off on conversational writing. “People speak in phrases.” But do they really? And do they as often as you hear it in news copy?

I am going to make the argument that leaving out key verbs is not done to make copy conversational. It happens for two other reasons more often:

1) To avoid using past or passive tense
2) Because you cannot answer a key part of the fact being presented and are doing a work around.

We delved pretty heavily into the first reason, avoiding using past tense in an article on faking the present.

Some examples sent by this former journalist include: “Today investigators trying to piece together what happened.” and “Hurricane Bob approaching the coast tonight.” Both of these are avoiding “to be.” The reason likely is that the information is not new. The other reason, is to avoid passive tense. We delve into how to get around that in our ultimate writing challenge.

But one thing we haven’t delved into quite as much is the whole, I don’t really know the facts issue. Sadly, this is all too common, especially because journalists are facing huge increases in workload, with little to no support. The former journalist I have been emailing with mentioned that “the most challenging part of writing in active tense was knowing who or what was the “subject” of a subject-verb-object sentence should be. If, for example, a writer knows that a person was accused of something but the writer does not know (and is perhaps too time-pressed or lazy to find out) who did the accusing, writing in active tense is difficult.” So true! And as a journalist who was asked to crank out insane amounts of copy with little to no help, repeatedly, I cannot completely fault writers for this. I understand the “Too time pressed” argument. Leaving these elements out of the story until you get them cleared up isn’t always possible. But there can be a couple of work arounds to help you in this time of fact checking need. Have an assignment editor or manager you trust read over that particular story and ask what they can do to help you fix that fact. Have an anchor do the same. And then tell your EP that the following stories could be written stronger but you don’t have all the facts you need. Yes, share the pain and burden with others. If they blow it off and the copy stays passive, you did all you could. If they just take out the “is”-“ing” combo and dump a verb, at least it wasn’t you. You tried to get all the facts. But keep asking. Hopefully at some point the assignment manager and/or EP will start to see that there is a hole in the system. Too much is getting by with too little information being confirmed. Then, who knows, you might get more support.

Do I think that I will hear more verbs soon? No. The trend is likely here to stay. But I do think that many journalists really want to write things concisely, clearly and knowing they have all the facts. That is why I have to challenge you to demand more. Pick one or two stories a day you call on, to clear up the confusion. It will make you a better writer, better journalist and give you a sense of accomplishment that sometimes is lacking in the daily grind. You cannot fact check all the stories as a producer. There’s not enough time. But you can and should point out the ones you feel could be stronger. After all, your goal is to provide the most information the best way possible. The anchors deserve that. They want to be the most able to explain the information. The newsroom deserves that. It will be noticed for its ability to clearly explain stories the other stations “cheat” on. Most of all, the viewers deserve that. They count on you to have the facts. They make or break your success, so spoil them rotten. Give them more sentences with verbs, in active voice! Don’t take the easy way. Do it the right way. Everyone wins.

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