Larry McGill is a producer at WRAL News in Raleigh.He began his journalism career as a radio producer and on-air talent.Larry spends most of his spare time pursuing an interest in photography, working on getting his own blog off the ground, and trying to keep up with his baby daughter.
I was recently in a meeting with a consultant on the topic of relevance. As he showed a package from another news organization to illustrate a point, I couldn’t help but become distracted from the story as I heard a noise that sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard.
That sound was the term “behind bars” and it was used no less than 3 times in the toss to the package alone. I stopped counting after hearing it the first two times in the package. The anchors and reporters used the term so much, I’m pretty sure there was a bet on how many times they could get it on the air (“Look here, meow…”).
That term is one of many that I exterminate from my newscasts with prejudice. It makes my team sound too “newsy” instead of the normal conversational tone most writers are going for. And to me, they all sound like fingernails on a chalk board. With such a prejudice in mind, I offer a list of what I consider to be the worst in the news vernacular. Some of them, you may be familiar with. Others could be debated; however, I think you’ll agree most of them should be remanded to a time when the news was read by stuffy old men speaking into a large diaphragm microphone sitting on a desk next to an ash tray.
“Behind Bars” – This is one of the worst offenders (no pun intended). Just say they person is in jail or prison. I’ve never used this when talking with regular people which means it shouldn’t be in a script that’s meant to be written at an 8th grade reading level. Oh by the way…
Jail vs Prison – The two are not interchangeable. Jails are generally run by local governments are and meant to store suspects for the short term. Prisons are generally run by state and federal governments and hold criminals long term.
“Police are investigating” – Don’t lead a story by telling me police are doing what we pay them to do. That’s not news… although in this day and age it could be up for discussion.
“Under fire” – If that politician isn’t burning, they’re not under fire. Just tell me what they did wrong and get to the next story.
“Grilled” – Use this when referring to steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, or any other food being cooked over a flame. Do not use it to refer to people being asked tough questions.
“Death Toll” – Another term you don’t use in normal conversation, so it doesn’t belong in your scripts. And to me, it sounds like we’re waiting in the wings of a disaster keeping some kind of morbid score. I know… in some situations we are, however you don’t need to let the viewer know that.
“Speaking Out” – I have never heard anyone “speak in”
“Shots rang out” – Much like speaking… gun shots generally don’t ring in.
Homicide vs murder – A homicide is the death of one person at the hands of another. Murder implies there was an intent to kill. While every murder is a type of homicide. Every homicide is not a murder.
“Footage” – This implies there is a tape or reel somewhere, which makes you sound old.
“Gearing Up” – Drivers gear up (assuming you know how to use a manual transmission). Political campaigns and other organizations of the like do not.
If you’re using these words, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t even make you a terrible writer. But they do make things sound highly cliché. Additionally, because they are so over and wrongly used, they can end up being a mark of overall lazy writing.
When I see a story written by the producers I look up to (which are generally in my own newsroom and in some larger markets) these items are NEVER used. I would almost chalk that up to the list of items that make a writer seem “small market.” Unfortunately, though, I’ve seen these in some major markets, and see them even more in scripts from our affiliate feeds… which you should ALWAYS re-write, but that’s a topic for another post. By keeping these items out of your script, your stories can be more concise and more effective at relaying your message.