Apparently, Reportedly and Allegedly Are Not Conversational.

Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on Apparently, Reportedly and Allegedly Are Not Conversational.
Apr 122015

Recently on the @survivetvjobs Twitter line, there was a rather intense conversation about the words “apparently,” “reportedly” and “allegedly.” A journalist argued that these words are fine to use instead of attribution. In fact he argued they are necessary to be conversational, so the copy will not be boring and make viewers turn away.

This debate symbolized a big reason why I created “Survive.” It signaled a lack of training, and a lack of checks and balances in newsrooms across the country. Bottom line, no journalist would think that way and we would never see these words in copy, if they clearly were banned in newsrooms. But they are not. I hear each of these words more times than I can count when surveying newscasts, nationwide.

I can and have discussed why these words do not protect you. For this article I will simply say that if you really think about it, you do not need “apparently,” “reportedly” or “allegedly” if you know the facts are true. For facts we do not know yet, or have partial information about, you attribute to whomever was the expert or authority who told you the partial information. These words are most commonly used in crime stories. You’ve heard them a million times. The robber apparently broke into the store around 3 AM. Does it matter exactly when? The robber broke in before dawn. The robber broke in before the store was crowded. See how I got around apparently easily, with facts I knew? Apparently, allegedly and reportedly tell the viewer you are unclear and are guessing. If the unclear facts seem relevant and you do not know all the details, just say so. We don’t know how this fire started yet. But when we find out we will let you know. That is conversational.

And speaking of conversational, do you walk up to a buddy and say, “Sue allegedly dumped Bob last night?” Nope. Or how about this, “The track shack is reportedly setting up another race?” I don’t think so. Sometimes someone will say “I hear Sue is dumping Bob” and the other person says “Apparently.” That I will give you. But what does it add? How would that improve news copy and keep it from being boring?

Let’s just be straight with each other. “Apparently,” “reportedly” and “allegedly” are not put into news copy to be conversational. They are used as crutches to couch that you do not understand something in the story, or just do not have the information. The use of these words says you are guessing. Educated guess or not, it just sounds sloppy. It’s not conversational. Conversational writing is clear. There is no room for a guess.

Just because you can get away with these words in your copy in your newsroom does not mean you should. Be better than that. You deserve it. Your viewers really deserve it. Attribute or say, we don’t know everything about the story yet. But as we learn new facts, we will tell them to you. Viewers like when the story is still ongoing. They like feeling they are the “first to know” about things that are happening right then. You do not have to know all of the story. But what you do tell, you need to be clear on. Dump the catch phrases, and be direct. Your writing will rock and your viewership will too.

Emotional Toll: How to design rundowns

Producing, Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on Emotional Toll: How to design rundowns
Jul 162014

My guess is Gary Vosot has a whole line of comedy about this common faux pas in newscasts (if he doesn’t, he should!). The anchor reads a heavy story that involves death, then either the same anchor or the other anchor has to read a story about something warm and fuzzy, like bunnies. (Yes I am exaggerating, but only slightly.)

Producers have so many decisions to make when designing rundowns. Length of block, not too many packages or chunks in a row, hitting key audiences, not too much crime.. and something positive to balance out the hard to take news. What often happens is, producers trying to jam it all in, end up putting stories next to each other that simply do not carry the same emotional weight to the viewer.

We know facts are extremely important to share with viewers. But we forget that, because we present our information with images, we naturally play on viewers emotions and, at times, intensely. This even happens with vo’s and vo/sots. Do not assume that storytelling only happens in packages. That is the first mistake that leads to these very uncomfortable, mass murder to a story about a cute puppy rescue, scenarios.

Remember that your ultimate goal is to have your anchors be the “tour guides” for your viewers, taking them through the stories of the day. When you think of it this way, you have to think about step one leading to step two.. etc. By the way, this type of “stacking” or designing your rundown will not only prevent a lot of these uncomfortable emotional clashes, it will also help prevent all the other issues you face when stacking… like too many packages in a row, too much crime, too many stories from the same part of the DMA etc.

When putting together your rundown, you need to gradually lead your viewer through emotions as well as subjects. You need to identify the less emotionally taxing stories that are good transitions, in your tour. On an actual tour you have rest stops. This needs to be true of rundowns too. Just remember to include those quick breathers. Then you can go from one strong emotion to the next. And try to end on a thoughtful or happy note. That is naturally how most conversations end. At least conversations that will lead to more talk later. That’s obviously what you want to create.

Here’s an example of types of stories that can come after highly emotional ones: white collar crime stories, political news like updates on city council plans, roads, tax increases etc. You want stories with high impact, just not such intense emotion as to trivialize the story before. This is why many places do crime stories in threes. The first, very emotional, the second a little less, the third either more white collar in nature, or where the good guy wins in the end. That allows you to switch gears completely and talk politics, education, economic news, health news etc without the viewer sensing a rough transition.

Finally when I mention ending on a thoughtful note, or happy one that doesn’t just apply to a kicker. It also applies to these series of three. Do not do three stories in a row about children being killed, then just transition to a political story. You need to button up this kind of coverage, with some perspective that allows the viewer to emotionally catch up and frankly feel like there is control of these situations. Maybe it’s a vo on an initiative that’s preventing other crimes against children. Maybe it is a graphic showing less children are actually dying overall. Something thought provoking to help the viewer emotionally transition. Then you pick some more neutral stories, then a warm fuzzy to end the block. This type of flow, heavy emotion, thought provoking, neutral, thought provoking, then uplifting can really make your newscast feel powerful and easier for the viewers to take. Especially when you have a lot of emotionally taxing news to report. Break it up. Many just throw it all in at the top, and reward the viewer for getting through it. The problem is the viewer will likely tune out before you get to the “reward” or feel emotionally drained and think the “reward” is trivial in comparison. Better to ease the message throughout. When you think of times you have “tough” conversations with people, we naturally mix in a little of the bad, some neutral, some good back to neutral then to bad and so on throughout the conversation. Do the same with your rundown. Your viewer will appreciate it and notice.

How to tighten your own writing.

Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on How to tighten your own writing.
May 272013

When producers call and tell me how their work stands out, the number one statement I hear is“ my writing is tight.”  Truth be told, when I review a newscast, that is rarely the case.  Same is true of reporter scripts.  I would get calls from the crews to copy edit and be told “You will love it, my writing is so clean and tight.”  That is a tall order.  Many were shocked to hear they fell short.

So how do you tighten your own writing?  Copy edit yourself.  Write your script or cold open or whatever it is, and then go back to it and try and shave time off.  Often you will find entire sentences or sections that you can cut.

Another effective technique is to compartmentalize elements.  When constructing a live pkg for example, assign facts for each element.  Maybe the “what” and “when” are in the anchor intro, the “where” is explained in the live lead, the “who” is the start of your pkg which ends with the “how.”  The live tag is the “what’s next.”  This helps tighten things up.  Often pkg’s repeat information from the anchor intro or live intro.  Then the tag repeats information yet again.  By compartmentalizing, you help story tell better (see Storytelling on a Dime) and you write more succinctly.

Print out multiple stories, take them home, then write them over again.  Sometimes practice makes perfect.  A little secret:  Many of the best in the business take time out each day or at least each week for self evaluation (see Humble Pie).  Your writing will improve.  Your speed will improve as well.

Finally, make adverbs and adjectives really count.  They must be crucial to the telling of the story, not just something you throw in for extra flare.  If you do that, your writing will not only become more clear and concise, but you will also avoid exaggerating facts.

So there you have it, some ways to tighten up your own writing.

 

I have a confession to make.  I love great lines!  I love them so much, I put them on sticky notes and post them all over my desk.  I have a file with some of them.  Some I wrote and just can’t believe they came from my brain.  The vast majority, however, are from other people.  I read them, in awe of what I heard.

The best storytellers in this biz, on and off camera, understand the power of a simple understated line.  This is their signature.  Think about it.  When you reflect on the journalists that inspire you, a line they wrote probably pops into your head.  A moment bursts into your mind.  Those words stay with you.

So why keep these lines all over my desk?  When I am sitting down to write, I look at some of these lines and think “come on, you can do this too.”  Let me make it clear, I do not steal these lines and reuse them.  I use then for inspiration.  I simply read them again and consider the emotion they draw.  I search for irony.  I search for a human connection.  I relish the memory of hearing the line.  This helps me look for the irony, the human connection and the moment in whatever I am writing that day.  The lines help me explain storytelling.

Most of all, the lines remind me why I loved being a journalist and why I still love to write.  Words, stay with you.  Just like me, the viewers can remember the moments.  I want them to have a great line to relish.  I hope this inspires you to come up with some amazing lines of your own.  Something you too can post on a sticky note!

 

How to “go big” on national breaking news

Producing, Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on How to “go big” on national breaking news
Jan 242013

A producer recently emailed asking about ways to handle big, breaking national stories.  Do you sacrifice local and fill the a-block?  How without offending the viewer who might want a lot of local?  What a great topic, since it is so easy to go online and on cable news and get that national story.  So let’s delve in to ways to do this, without offending local viewers.  Also, I would love to hear your feedback on whether you think going big on a national story, locally, is effective since social media and online news are so relevant now.  Please go to our FB page and talk about it.  This debate will continue to grow as TV redefines its role.  When you discuss it, consider these key points.  They can help you decide how much to do on large scale national stories during your local newscast.

  • Viewers are used to getting news at this time of day, from you
  • Viewers feel a connection to your anchors

 

Both of the points listed above come down to one important point, when deciding how to cover a big national story:  Trust.  Viewers trust their familiar, local, anchors and like checking in that time of the day with those anchors.  They are prepared to see your anchors giving them the most important news at that time.  That’s why so many newsrooms go big, even when the story is not local.

The producer that emailed me specifically mentioned the Newtown school shootings.  This is a different scenario than the fiscal cliff, which is easy to localize.  The day of the shootings, you are still figuring out what the basic facts are, so localizing can be a little more difficult.  Blowing out an assumption, to turn local angles can backfire.  So localize as much as you can but, do not feel you must have a lot of local tie-ins in order to go big.  Large market producers will tell you this is an opportunity to let your anchors own the big story, just like a local breaker.  That means avoiding a national package.  If you are allowed to get a live shot from the affiliate feed, go for a custom and let your anchors debrief the anchors with questions you think your viewers would want answered.  Make sure you have a set up spelling out the basic facts and setting the scene, so the viewer understands the scope.  This can be done with vo/sots, a package you write for your anchors, or a combination of nat sound, vo’s, vo/sots and graphics.  Do what you need to really spell the story out in an effective way for your viewers.  The point is owning the story, instead of seeming to hand it off to a network reporter and moving on.  Handing it off can encourage a viewer to switch channels.  Remember, the viewer has a trust connection with your anchors.  They can tell the story well, and should.

When you can add tidbits of local reaction, do it.  Let your anchors help you find this information out.  It really is an effective technique to have your anchor say something like, “I just called so and so, and that agency would handle a situation like this, the same way.”  Again, your anchor is acting as an advocate for the viewer, let them ask the questions the viewers would love to ask themselves.  Let the anchor “own the story.”  The viewer trusts the anchor and wants to see him/her in that role.

Another solid technique is letting the viewer know about local stories coming up, and when they will see them during this national coverage.  Some mention it as an umbrella lead and some do it with teases off the top of the newscast.  Some just have the anchors mention there is a lot of local news coming up in 5 minutes.  That way, viewers know you are also on top of the “big” local news of the day as well.

The key when determining how much coverage to give a big national story is the potential impact it will have on your viewers.  For example, the Newtown school shootings were so shocking, viewers would crave information.  By not covering it much, you would actually encourage viewers, used to watching news at that time, to switch channels.  The viewer’s gut feeling would be “This is a huge story, I need to know about.”  They want to learn the information from journalists they trust.  You can encourage them to further believe that it is your anchors and reporters they need to trust.  Do not just shove a national pkg off a feed into the a-block and let it go.  Let your anchors ask the questions the viewers want answered.  Continue to build the trust. That way when a big story happens, your viewers will turn to your newscast first, no matter where the story came from.

Parroting bites

Reporting, Survival Kit, Videography, Writing Help Comments Off on Parroting bites
Jan 212013

Ever heard that phrase?  Parroting bites is a common writing flaw in television news.  It seems like such an obvious no-no, but it happens a lot.  So let’s define it, to try and stop it from happening.

Parroting bites, means repeating what the sound bite said in the anchor copy, sometimes word for word.  It usually happens right before or right after the sound bite.  While writing for the ear involves some repetition, it is not a good idea to “parrot.”  It actually confuses the person listening.  The viewer wonders, why are they saying the same thing over and over, then misses the next part of the story.

Bites do need set up, and that often involves explaining the gist of what the person is going to tell the viewer, but you should not parrot.  Focus on why the sound bite is relevant in the set up.  Often the bite is relevant for two reasons, the person saying it and/or the bite explains the importance of the information you are providing.  So, focus on those reasons when setting it up.  “This lawmaker is behind the legislation.”  “This witness saw exactly what happened.”  “So why is this research important?  This doctor explains.”  Catch my drift?  That makes the viewer want to hear the sound bite, and immediately recognize the importance of the context of the sound.  Since you have so little time to explain much of anything, you need each word to really count, including set ups to sound bites.  Parroting wastes time.

If the sound bite is hard to understand, you can paraphrase afterwords, but say that’s why you are doing it.  “Just to make sure you heard that, he said…”  Parroting involves directly repeating the bite, without explaining why.  If you explain why, it is not parroting.

One last thought on parroting sound bites.  It makes the anchor or reporter reading the script, appear that they do not understand the story and, have no idea about the person the sound is coming from.  It screams, “This anchor just reads, and doesn’t know that he/she is talking about!”  Think about it.  When you talk to someone and they repeat exactly what you said back to you, you question if the person really gets what you are talking about.  Same rule applies go parroting bites in news copy.  Credibility is crucial.  So don’t parrot bites.

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