Faking the present: When what’s happening now, really isn’t

A morning producer recently posed this question:  What do you do with the phrase “police are looking” from the previous night’s copy?  Do you keep the phrase present tense?  Immediately other morning producers jumped in stating you need to write present tense.  No question TV news is designed for the here and now.  But let’s get realistic for a moment.  In early morning and late evening newscasts, the expectation that all the news is here and now is not possible for multiple hour shows.  The biggest offenders perpetuating this idea that everything is all new and all happening right now are Newsies.  Too often during morning and late evening newscasts, I hear “false present” tense. The anchors always look uncomfortable reading this “faked” tense because it is not natural.  Viewers get that everything you tell them is not happening right that minute.  They just want you stop pretending it is.  Harsh?  Not when you spend time with non-newsies.  If I had a dollar for every time I was asked “Why do you news people have to act like something is happening right then when it’s not?” well, I would not be writing this article.  I would be sipping Mai Tai’s on a tropical beach, fulltime!

So what’s the work around?   First, let’s look more at false present.  Popular examples, “the President authorizes a bill”, when showing video of him signing it the day before or “the Olympics start in London” when they actually started the day before.  Just because the video shows the signing or opening ceremony doesn’t mean it’s happening at that moment.  Viewers know when events like that happened.  This is also called headline speak and it is frustrating to hear and read.  So why is it drilled into TV journalists to write in present tense and only in present tense?  Because that is an easy way to try and force you into sticking to what’s new in a given story.  Yes, if you are putting a story in your newscast there should be a new element that you can explain in the first sentence.  Yes, use present tense if you possibly can.  But remember, viewers do not watch every day and they do not watch every newscast.  You must include enough “background” so they have a clue what you are talking about.  Use past tense when providing the background, when appropriate.  This is especially true if the story is a follow up from the day or week or month before.  Often, I hear headline speak in these type of follow ups as well.  Journalists leave out the verb in these “follow up” sentences.  You get weird, title like, descriptions such as “the July 9th shooting”… or “the mill fire.“  Unnatural and uncomfortable.

Now let’s look at the phrase the producer brought up:  “Police are looking.”  Unless there’s been a mass murder or a police officer was shot, odds are police are not actually out physically searching for the people responsible at 4:30 a.m.  You can keep this present tense if what police were looking for is still relevant later that night or the next morning (i.e.- they really are still on the street actively looking).  Write it this way instead: “Police hope to find…” or “Police want to find…“  That would still be true and you are not emphasizing an act that isn’t really happening at the time of your newscast.  There’s also nothing wrong with showing video of the search and saying “Police looked for 3 hours, with no luck yesterday. They hope for more leads today.”

The big takeaway here is that every sentence in your copy does not have to be present tense.  Conversational writing changes tenses naturally.  When you tell someone a story, you provide background information for context.  I guarantee when you do, you use past tense, because that’s when the background information happened.  The “write present tense rule” doesn’t mean deny past tense completely, no exceptions.  It is a generalization.  Remember the reason behind it.  Focus on new.  If you do, while still providing context for the stories, you will legitimately focus on the present, while not denying the past.