News writing is a lot harder than it looks.
Part of that is just the nature of news. We have to get a lot of information out, and for broadcast — radio and TV — we typically don’t have a lot of regurgitation time (insert your own visual here). I’m fortunate in my current position because upper levels of management have given my department the leeway to give a 15-minute news hole for our featured newscasts. This means our staffers have the unmentioned go-ahead to flesh out stories with all the necessary details so our listeners and Web site readers get more details than other broadcast media outlets can provide. It’s not to the level of print journalism — again, the time factor rears its ugly head, especially with the number of stories we’re generating — but it’s one of the things I really like about small-town journalism in general and our station policy in particular.
But part of that is also a desire to, well, spice up the news. And, in some cases, that’s being kind.
I remember a TV news anchor in Omaha from the late 1980s who relayed all information — all information — in the most dramatic terms possible. Car crash? Disastrous, even if it was a fender-bender. Fire? Always destructive — which technically was true, but obviously there are different levels of destruction from such incidents.
It didn’t take long for said anchor to depart the TV station for greener pastures and more mundane news writing (and news delivering) to return to that station’s airwaves.
The problems with dramatic news writing, especially for basic and breaking news, are severalfold. First, it’s distracting to the listener and to the Web site reader. Second, it’s numbing to the audience, especially when people eventually figure out the adjectives and the actions don’t match.
Problems don’t stop there on the broadcast side because a dramatically-written story automatically causes an anchor to change his delivery emphasis — and in some cases to leave what’s actually important underemphasized.
News stories written with a lot of flowery language may generate more online clicks for a certain period of time. However, once readers realize there’s much ado about very little, they will find other news sources that focus on the truth, regardless of how boring the details may be. And your news operation will suffer a damaged reputation as a result.
As far as I’m concerned, a news department’s focus should be in the following order.
- Truth in all aspects
- Engage with details
- Entertain if dictated by content
As you can see, embellishment of details is nowhere on this list. However, go back to the paragraph about online traffic. Once grandiose language is allowed and online traffic seems to increase, a news reporter can be easily tempted to either write things out of context, blow things out of proportion or write things that simply can’t happen just so more people come on board the Web site. Many have taken to the temptation…to the detriment of the profession.
After having seen dramatic language — both elsewhere and, unfortunately, in my department — and after hearing from people over the course of time, it’s my experience that the story content drives readership and listenership far more than how dramatically it’s presented.
Basic is boring when it comes to news writing, especially for hard news. There’s no doubt about that. But given the choice between dramatic and dry, basic is also best.