By Steve Narisi
If journalists were described in literary terms, print reporters would be novelists and broadcast reporters would be poets. The goal of broadcast writing, besides nailing down the facts, is to write short, tight copy anchored by immediacy.
Words spoken on television and radio are fleeting, disappearing in an instant. The audience doesn’t have the luxury of reading text again if they don’t understand something. While watching or listening to a story, the audience may be distracted. They could be driving a car on a busy street or cooking dinner while watching their kids. The viewers and listeners must grasp the story the first and only time they see it or hear it.
Most stories for radio will run a minute or less for a reporter’s packages. For television, the reporter packages will run less than two minutes. For voice-over video stories, the length is usually 30 seconds or less.
Before we discuss writing style in more detail, let’s watch some examples:
VOICE OVER (VO)
VOICE OVER SOUND ON TAPE (VOSOT)
PACKAGES WITH LIVE SHOT
And here is an additional example of a news package.
RADIO vs. TV
Radio and television writing are similar in style, using an economy of words, but there are differences.
Radio is an auditory experience. Words and phrases need to help the audience visualize the story. In radio, natural sound (and sometimes music) provides support and helps draw the listener into the story. You write for the ear.
Television is a visual medium. Words and phrases are used in conjunction with video to tell the story. You write for the eye.
Broadcast style is informal and conversational. You write like you speak. It shouldn’t be written and spoken like you are talking to a stranger. You should never speak down to an audience.
- Keep It Short and Simple
- Short declarative sentences make for conversational copy.
- Stories are short! Don’t overload the audience with information.
- One of the tricks is to know what to leave out.
- Select, don’t compress.
- Keep sentences to 20 words are fewer (easier for the narrator to read).
- Keep each sentence to one thought.
- Use simple subject-verb-object structure.
- Use descriptive, strong words.
- Write in active, not passive voice: “THE DRIVER WRECKED HIS CAR”, not “THE CAR WAS WRECKED BY THE DRIVER.”
In broadcast news writing, immediacy is important. It’s not what happened last night or yesterday. It’s what is happening now! Avoid last night and yesterday, especially in the lede. Focus on NEW, NOW, NEXT information. Even if a crime or a fire happened yesterday, the lede requires new information from TODAY or “THIS HOUR” or what viewers or listeners can “EXPECT NEXT.”
Let’s use flip cards to look at a couple of writing examples. Here’s the first question:
And here’s question two:
Again, broadcast writers try to emphasize present tense.
- THE STATE LOTTERY COMMISSIONER SAYS A NINE MILLION DOLLAR WINNER’S CHECK REMAINS UNCLAIMED TODAY.
Sometimes, broadcast writers emphasize future tense.
- SHELDON STATE UNIVERSITY WILL OFFER A NEW DEGREE IN CRYPTO CURRENCY. CHANCELLOR AMELIA ORTEGA SAYS THE CURRICULUM IS SET AND STUDENTS CAN BEGIN TAKING CLASSES THIS FALL.
So, use present tense verbs when something is immediate or future tense verbs when looking ahead. But a word of caution: Don’t force present tense if it makes a sentence awkward. Use past tense verbs to tell of something in the past.
For example, here is a mixture of both:
INVESTIGATORS ARE POKING THROUGH ASHES TODAY TRYING TO DETERMINE WHAT STARTED A SUSPICIOUS FIRE LAST NIGHT AT ACME HARDWARE IN HAPPYVILLE.
THE BLAZE DESTROYED MOST OF THE STORE LOCATED AT ONE-HUNDRED SOUTH MAIN.
WITNESSES TELL FIRE OFFICIALS THEY HEARD A LOUD BANG AND THEN SAW HUGE FLAMES ON THE ROOF.
THE FACTORY WAS CLOSED AT THE TIME.
AN ACME HARDWARE SPOKESMAN PLACES THE DAMAGES AT ONE-MILLION DOLLARS.
ATTRIBUTION: SAYS vs. SAID
In print, said is the correct word for attribution, either before or after the source depending on title placement. For example:
PRINT – “I am helping keep Pleasantville funky,” said Bill Smith, the mayor of Pleasantville.
BROADCAST – MAYOR BILL SMITH SAYS HE’S HELPING KEEP PLEASANTVILLE FUNKY.
In broadcast, the title goes before the name, not after.
- CHANCELLOR JOAN GERMAIN
- PRESIDENT JULIAN HERNANDEZ
It’s OK to use contractions as long as you don’t use them too much. Here are some listener-friendly contractions:
And here are some awkward contractions that you should avoid:
Broadcast writers paraphrase and use SOTs (Sound on Tape; also called soundbite or bite). The SOTs rarely last longer than 15 seconds. When no video soundbite is available, and the quote is important, the quote should be written out, in full, on a graphic the viewer can see while the anchor is reading the quote.
- Numbers 1-9: Spell out the word.
- Numbers 10-999: Use numerals.
- Numbers higher than 999: Use a combination of numerals and words.
- 1,100,009: ONE MILLION, 100-THOUSAND (round off)
- 2,986: THREE-THOUSAND (round off)
AVOID $@*% SYMBOLS AND ABBREVIATIONS
In broadcast, we write for the teleprompter. Consider these two examples:
- ONE-POINT-TWO MILLION DOLLARS
(not $1.2 million)
- N-Double A-C-P
(not NAACP )
- Journalists for some broadcast outlets write scripts in ALL CAPS.
- With ALL CAPS, the anchor or reporter may slow down and pay more attention to the actual words instead of reading the shapes of words. ALL CAPS are also easier to read off a teleprompter.
- For example, though, through and thorough have similar shapes in small text. Using THOUGH vs. THROUGH vs. THOROUGH may help some narrators focus on pronouncing each individual word correctly.
- Formats vary from outlet to outlet.
When the script is written, read the script OUT LOUD. If it doesn’t sound good, it isn’t good. Here’s what happens when the broadcast script is not concise, conversational, and simple.
We’ll close this lesson with some additional examples of broadcast lede writing.
Use the turn button to flip each card and the forward button to advance through additional examples of ledes converted to broadcast style.