Writing clear, concise news scripts is sometimes a challenge when you’re facing a tight deadline. But it’s not a license to use horrid cliché’s like “fled on foot”, “shots rang out”, or any one of a thousand other phrases that we hear too often. Here’s a link to a list of newswriting clichés which you should avoid.
Here are some other really useful ideas for newcomers to the TV News business, from a guy who’s “been around the block” a few times, Gerrit Marshall of WISC-TV in Madison.
WE’RE YOUR FRIENDS!
Operations and Engineering personnel are your friends! Be nice to them! Seriously, they want the best for you and your story. When things go wrong, for whatever reasons, they feel bad too. Yes, it’s your face or name associated with the particular story, but it’s their work too. They just don’t get the credit much of the time.
LEARN THE BASICS
Learn a little bit about the basics of lighting, editing, shooting. If you are in small market TV, you won’t have a choice, so learn now. If you are lucky enough to get into big market news you will be able to work smarter because you know about the basic procedures and tools. However, remember, down the road, even though you have “some” knowledge they still have more than you do, so be intelligent as to how you use yours.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the Directors, Ops crew and Engineers. The more you know the better the chance your product will look and sound good.
NO MIRACLES IN POST
You can’t ALWAYS fix mistakes in post. If it comes in bad to begin with, chances are it will go out bad too. There are exceptions of course, but those are not the rule. So try to get it right the first time.
IT’S NOT A GUESSING GAME
Directors don’t like to guess about information during the live programs. More times than not they get burned. So your scripts need to be complete with ALL information required to air it successfully. Remember, they may not have clue as to whom you are interviewing, let along know what they look like on camera. So don’t make them guess. All insert, super; chyron, (whatever you call them), information needs to be on the script with the correct time.
REMEMBER THE PROMPTER
Remember, in this day of electronics, everything you type in for the script will most likely also get prompted. This includes what goes out for Closed Captioning. So use good grammar and accurate spelling as most prompting today is electronically captured for captioning. And at the same time leave out elements that don’t need to be there, like edit instructions. Nobody at home needs to know that the sound bite hits at :30 for 15 seconds at 25:15 into the raw.
Before you go “live”…….. consider that the mike is ALWAYS on, don’t say anything you will regret later. Law suits and gag reels are two things you don’t want on your resume.
IT’S STILL GOLDEN
The Golden Rule and Everything You Learned in Kindergarten works well during your career.
If you are going to go complain to your manager, make sure you offer a solution. They don’t always have the answers.
There you have it – nine useful pieces of advice from one of the best “behind the scenes” professionals in the business!
MORE SOLID ADVICE
Former WBAY-TV anchor and reporter Jerry Burke says the basics are still as important as always. “Avoid writing or saying words most people don’t know the meaning of. Example: hyperbole. Go out on the street and ask several people what it means. Most of them won’t know. You may think you’re impressing people with fancy language, but in reality you’re only impressing yourself”.
Jerry ads a comment on another basic skill often overlooked: “Properly pronounce words. It’s for, not fer. It’s just, not jist. It’s get, not git.” There’s nothing wrong with being conversational in reporting the news, but it’s still a “formal” speaking situation, and good pronunciation is important.
Former WKOW-TV Madison anchor Tara Arnold has some very practical advice: “Keep a pair of old boots and a change of clothes with you at all times. You never know when you might get sent to a sewer backup or a pig farm”. She also suggests “always keep food in your reporter bag, right next to an extra notebook and extra batteries. You never know when you might get involved in covering a 12-hour standoff in the middle of nowhere”.
GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME
Former Press Secretary to the Wisconsin Governor and radio news veteran Debbie Monterrey Millet, now morning news anchor at KMOX in St. Louis has words of caution about a common problem in many broadcast news rooms: “There is so much pressure to get it up on the web that things that go online are incorrect, inaccurate, and incomplete. The problem is, once it’s out there, everyone uses it and it becomes ‘fact’. We, the media, are finding that fact-checking takes a backseat to immediacy”.
Here are some really valuable suggestions from Lisa Hull, former radio news executive and Communications Director to the Governor of Wisconsin, now Strategic Communications Consultant for American Family Insurance:
- Cultivate your contacts and sources. Try to get to know people as people before you call them up out of the blue and ask for comment on a story you’re working on. They will be much more likely to talk with you, and perhaps contribute in a meaningful way to your story, if they have some idea of who you are.
- Never, ever, ever burn a source. You might get a story that day, but you’ll never get one again. ‘Nuff said!
- Build relationships with your media peers and colleagues, especially when you’re new to a town or beat, or even story. Making friends with an old hand with institutional knowledge who will be willing to share background and “who’s who, and how did we get to this point” is invaluable.
- Be prepared. If you ask for an interview, go prepared. Make it a point to have specific questions. It’s your job to ask the right questions. And if you ask for 15 minutes, make sure you’re out the door at the end of those 15 minutes.
- Get the lay of the land. Literally. Know how to get around, where to park, how long it takes you to get from one side of town to the other.
Don’t come rushing in to a press conference or media availability late, knocking over mics and tripping over cords once the event has started. Other reporters will give you dirty looks, and it’s disrespectful to the person at the podium. This is part of doing your homework.
- Do your homework. Know what’s going on and be able to ask intelligent questions. If you don’t know, talk to an aide or colleague for the background before you waste someone’s time and come out of the interview with no news.
- Make friends with the receptionists, the administrative assistants, the staff people, the schedulers. (See cultivate sources.)
- Be fair. Remember that you will be pegged as “friendly” or “hostile,” based on the outlet you work for, the way you report the news, the angles you take. Nobody is completely objective, no matter how they try to drill that into your head in J-School, (and no matter what you think of yourself.)
Your sources watch you just as closely, if not closer, than you watch them. Guess who’s going to get the juicy, exclusive story? I’m not saying you should slant your stories to one side or the other, but be fair. If you’re covering politics and your source calls you on the carpet the day your story runs… better be able to explain how you see it was a fair story.
- Understand the time demands on a newsmaker. Even a press secretary needs time to track down information. Don’t call at 3:30 with a 5:00 deadline and then say on air that calls weren’t returned. Newsmakers (and their aides) have busy schedules and sometimes their schedule just won’t mesh with your deadlines. Give them enough time to do their job.
- Be honest. If you’re working on a negative story, lay it out, and give your source as much information about what you’re going to write as possible. Don’t ambush your sources.
- For heaven’s sake, get it right! If you’re going to write about budgets, city finances, statistics…anything that has to do with numbers, make triple sure you’re reporting it accurately. Ask for supporting documents, reports, executive summaries, and if in doubt, call back and ask for clarification.
- If you’re wrong, admit it. It will go a long way. If you make a mistake, admit it, correct it and apologize personally. It will soften the anger, and you will be more respected for taking responsibility. And your source will be more willing to keep talking to you if they know you didn’t do it on purpose.
Former WISC-TV anchor Beth Zurbuchen, who is now CEO of the Swiss Center of North America in New Glarus, once prepared a piece for her staff, giving them advice on how to deal with the media. This is a look at what some of your sources may believe about dealing with media:
When you contact the media …
- Be concise.
- Accept that they’re “always” busy.
- Leave a succinct and specific voice mail message.
- Give them a story that writes itself.
- Use plain English. Reporters may have been assigned to the metro desk yesterday; they may be writing about real estate tomorrow.
- Never patronize, but at the same time never assume that they have in-depth knowledge about your issue.
- Know what “off the record” means, and assume that nothing is off the record.
- Pay attention to the questions.
- Know in advance the points you want to make — stick to two or three points.
- Don’t be too self-serving.
- It’s OK to say, “This is an important issue and I want to be sure I convey our position precisely. Would you mind reading back what you just heard me say?”
- Never ask to see a story before it’s published.
- Never let a reporter get to you.
- If it doesn’t feel right—don’t do it.
- Research the reporter or outlet, if necessary, before granting an interview.