Of all the terms you hear in a newsroom, this is the hardest to clearly explain.  Television news is dependent on video for its existence, yet few TV journalists really know how to write to the images on the screen.

Writing to video means taking the images and making them mean something to the viewer.  You are providing perspective and complimenting the video the viewer is seeing.  Let’s start with aerial shots of flames burning up a motel.  In the video you see that the flames are shooting way above the roof.  There seems to be more than one floor.  It is early morning, before sunrise.  The flames are red, orange and yellow and the building is dark black.  You can see thick walls, but seem to be able to see through the building.  This is an aerial shot, so while there’s a lot to look at, the only movement is a pan from one end of the building to the other.  No close ups.  Here are the facts you get from the assignment desk and the crew on the way to the scene:  The motel houses 150 families; Most of the families called this place home, because they cannot afford to live anywhere else; The fire woke them up; Firefighters on the scene are struggling to save even a small part of the building which takes up nearly a city block;  You have the address;  No one is hurt.

Now let’s write to those aerial shots we talked about above.  Most would start off with a breaking news banner or breaking news open and say something like:  “Take a look at these flames in (city name).”  So, you mentioned the fire in the video right away.  For many, that’s writing to video.  Saying the phrase “take a look at these flames” is referencing video.    But it’s not writing to the video.  And, it’s also an overused phrase in news copy.  (see “So cliché”) Writing to video means coming out of the breaking news open or banner and saying “A fire almost the size of a city block is burning right now in (city location).  While you look at these flames shooting toward (helicopter name) consider this:  150 families are watching this same fire knowing all of their belongings are burning up.  This motel on (street name) was home for nearly all of them.  The only housing they could afford.  Firefighters are trying to save some of the building, but you can see what they are up against.  You can tell the fire is stripping this building down to its foundation.  While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel, we want you to know that no one was hurt in this fire.  Even now these flames keep shooting into the sky, lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could. An awful way to wake up this morning, for so many people.

Read that one more time.  All the facts are in this story, and the copy uses images to help compliment and put into perspective what viewers are seeing on the TV screen.  The phrases “this fire,” “these flames,” “you can see” and “you can tell” are all meant to get people to turn around and look actually at the video.  The phrases “lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could” and “While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel” help explain the intensity of the fire for people just staring into a TV screen.  These lines are meant to make the flames lasting images in the mind of the viewer.  Mentioning that this is how the families woke up helps make the video more relatable to the viewer as well.  It makes them think about what it must be like to wake in the middle of the scene playing out before them.

Now I want you to look back at paragraph 2 where I set up this fiery example of how to write to video.  Notice that I described the video before I told you the facts of the story?  That was intentional.  When writing to video, you have to see the images then, write.  This is opposite of what we are taught.  You probably have had it ingrained in your head that the facts are the most important thing.  That is true.   But what you need to consider the video as facts in your story.  Actually, in TV, the images are the most crucial facts.  That means when you start writing a story you need to know your video.  And, you need to be able to boil down your story into one sentence, in a way that puts a picture in your head.  In other words picking a first image is as important as writing a first line.  Luckily when you identify that image, the words will flow naturally as you explain the facts behind the pictures.  (For more on how to flow your stories read “Rule the Word” and “Storytelling on a Dime.”)

Let me give you another example of how to use images to provide perspective.  When we went to war a second time in Iraq there was a visual moment that summed up why the U.S. was there at all.  American and Iraqi troops knocked down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.  The head of the statue fell off and Iraqi’s dragged it through the streets.  Saddam’s head was literally handed to the Iraqi people after 24 years of his reign.  This moment was easily summed up in one line and with one image, “American and Iraqi troops join together to topple a key symbol of Saddam.” A powerful image, partnered with powerful facts, burns in your mind.

Now that you know how important writing to video is, I offer a challenge.  Before you write anything, put a shot list in your script to reference.  This goes for all writers.  Even assignment editors should write some sort of list of images that either the crew on the scene or stringer picked up.  It’s another question in a long list I know, but it will help everyone see the worth of a story in terms of television.  TV is writing to video.

If you take away only one thing from this article, make it this.  Video grabs a viewer’s attention for a few seconds.  You have to give the video meaning to last the length of the story.  That is writing to video. Even video as compelling as a huge fire can quickly become a turn off for viewers, if the words don’t support it.  They have other distraction pulling at their attention.  They have the internet to check out later if they are only mildly curious.  Your words have to help bring the video to life, no matter what it shows.  Some of the most compelling lines I have ever heard referenced boring video.  Take the image of the outside of a home where someone was killed.  Write to the video and say: “So and so welcomed company through that front door.  But now (name is gone).”  When I think of the Casey Anthony case two images stick in my mind:  Caylee’s photograph and a still shot of Casey Anthony.  The images burn in my mind because of the meaning behind their repeated use:  This little girl is dead and her mother is accused of killing her.  The point is video (or in this case photos) don’t have to be full of action to be compelling.  It just needs perspective.  Can you picture it?

 

We all have news wording that makes our skin crawl: “area residents,” “alleged” and “budget woes” to name a few.  Recently on Twitter a group of us started listing phrases that make us cringe.  Then one producer tweeted, “What do you use instead?”  Great question and we’re going to give you some answers.

First we need to discuss why these phrases come up so you can better understand how to avoid them.  In seminars you are taught that these phrases are formal language and not written for the ear.  That’s often true.  It can be hard to write on a computer screen and imagine the words actually coming out of someone’s mouth.  There’s more behind writers using these so called “crutch phrases” though.  Because they are used so often, they have become a sort of news slang.  They seem dependable when you write.  In fact it almost becomes expected that you will write this way.  Take music for example.  Thanks, in part, to tons of country and rock songs the term “ain’t” is now in the dictionary.  Think about it.  If you start singing songs in your head, it won’t take long to come across one with “ain’t” in the lyrics.  Many of the songs have amazing phrases, cadence and messages.  Yet the lyricist throws in “ain’t?”  It seems likes “ain’t” is expected in a song.  Now consider news copy.  The clichés we’re talking about are news writers versions of “ain’t.”  They are slang terms that some writers use as crutches because they hear them all the time.  Where?  In newsrooms, all day long.  Ask a reporter for a headline as he/she runs to a fire.  Chances are you will be told fire is at such and such address and “completely destroyed” the building.  We simply use these terms all the time.  But that does not mean they should end up in our news copy.

Writers (and by that we mean everyone who writes: anchors, producers, associate producers, reporters even assignment editors) also use these phrases because they are writing in a hurry.  When you are slamming information into the assignment file or into a script just to get the show done, you are going to use terms you are most familiar with.  That’s how the mind works.  You might call it: “News slang  under duress.”  Then a writer comes along for the next retread and ends up not comfortable with the story.  He/she clings to the news slang already in the script to avoid possibly changing the meaning of the copy.  Now you see how the cycle repeats over and over.

So how do you break the cycle of “news slang under duress?”  Discipline.  It begins with you printing out the news copy you write once every week and reading it over at home when you are more relaxed.  Have your highlighter ready and mark your “crutch phrases.”  Then work to eliminate them one at a time from all of your writing.  Write the “crutch phrase” on a notecard, then write three alternate types of wording.  Post the notecard somewhere on your desk at work.  That way, when you are slamming, you have quick options to avoid the clichés.

Many of the worst news clichés are easily avoided when deleting one word: “completely destroyed” becomes “destroyed.”  “Clouds of uncertainty” becomes uncertain.  “Brutal murder” is “murder.”  Most of this “news speak” is used while trying to provide an image.  “Clouds of uncertainty,” “brandishing a firearm,” “budget ax,” “hanging in the balance,” even “hit the nail on the head,” all put pictures in your mind.  These terms are not how you provide images in TV news.  You have video to provide the images.  Moving pictures are what separate us from newspapers and radio.  Remember when “writing for the ear” as consultants say, you are also writing to, or complimenting, the video.  (We  explain how to write to video more in depth in Can you picture it article.)  Your words do not need to put images in a person’s mind.  Again, this is not radio or the newspaper.  Your words need to get someone to look at the TV screen to see the images you are showing.  Your words also provide perspective.

Providing perspective means you need to understand what you are writing about.  I saw this repeatedly as a producer and an EP.  If the writer, be it a reporter, assignment editor, anchor, producer or associate producer did not understand the content, the copy became cliché.  When we are uncomfortable, we cling to crutches.  If you are unclear in understanding the story, you must ask for information before writing it.

Now let’s address the comment from the producer on Twitter asking what alternates to use for the crutch phrases.  Since writing for television news is always under duress, we at survivetvnewsjobs.com will start posting alternatives to consider until we build up an extensive list. (Cliché list)  Want to help us get that list built up quickly?  Throw some of the phrases you hate into our Tweet feed, at @survivetvjobs.  Here’s to making sure all of our copy isn’t “so cliché!”

 

 

Nothing like hearing this phrase while on deadline: “Be sure and produce it up.”   You think: “Sure, I can barely get the stuff I already have on my plate done, why not!”

Actually this is easier than it might seem.  “Producing it up” really means taking the information you have and putting it in nice tiny bundles. Think of it as buying a sweater set and matching jewelry as gifts.  You wrap the cardigan separately from the tank top underneath.  Then you wrap the earrings separately from the necklace.  Looking at all those boxes makes it seem like you spent a lot more than you did.  It’s all in the packaging.

When you “produce it up” you generally provide a nats/vo or vo/sot set up for the anchors to read that provides an overview in a visual way.  Then you focus the package on a particular element of the subject.  You save an interesting element for an anchor tag that usually is a question answer between the reporter and the anchors or maybe a vo or vosot for the anchors to read.  The point is to make the information you are providing clearer to understand.  You also are making the news more appealing to the eye so hopefully the viewer doesn’t daydream or head to the computer to cruise Facebook instead.

The other reason for “producing it up” is to try and showcase the team.   It’s showcasing your anchors and reporters as experts that work together to get the most information possible on a subject in a given day.  No, you really aren’t usually getting any more information or shooting any more video.  This is smoke and mirrors, but it works effectively. While focusing on the elements, you naturally must write more concisely.  This helps the ear understand while the visuals make the information appealing for the eyes.  Two senses aroused, means less likelihood viewers turn away.

One last benefit to “producing it up”: it makes producers/anchors/reporters and even photojournalists have to talk with each other a little more about the news.  This helps prevent fact errors.  It’s another level of script approval.

Still confused about “producing it up” and the benefits.  Consider the following.  When you watch coverage of a major event, like the earthquake in Japan you probably find yourself talking to the television asking questions.  Many times the questions you are asking could impact you or other viewers directly.  Once again we’re talking about human impact. The first morning of coverage of Japan, I found myself frustrated with all the networks.  I had to get online and see people’s stories on You Tube to really understand how to gage the event.  I needed to feel it.  I needed to know how far the quake was from Tokyo.  I needed graphics describing how the Tsunami came over.  The networks were too overwhelmed getting information.  I had to piecemeal from different stations and  Twitter.  Producing up some of these elements would have helped me understand the true depth of the losses.  Next, I wanted to know what this meant for costs of things from Japan.  Would the stock market crash because of this?  Answering these stories with graphics, live interviews, special maps and packages are great ways to produce up coverage locally.  This is what some stations call the “WIFM” (What’s In It For Me) of coverage.  Simply, it is another way to showcase the human element of stories.  These are things you want to provide viewers so they don’t turn away from your newscast to jump on the internet for the answers.

The final point, I cannot stress enough is “producing it up” is producer friendly.   It makes your job easier. You can visualize your rundown better, you can choose elements like natural sound, sidebars and graphics more easily.  It also will help you write succinctly.  Simply put, it just makes your newscast look sharp. Fear not. Go ahead, give it a try!

 

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