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Screen & Stage
Think of a news story as an old-fashioned bottle of milk, the kind with the cream floating on top. The cream on top is what's going into the typical television news story. A radio news story will have even less of the cream than the TV story.
There is an old joke in broadcasting circles that if the television networks had been around when Moses got the Ten Commandments from God. The lead of the story might have been written something like this: "Moses got Ten Commandments from God today. The three most important of these are . . . ." In other words, television and radio news only touch on the highlights of the story.
In print journalism, the lead usually includes the 5Ws – Who, What, When, Where, and Why … and sometimes How – all contained in a single sentence. In television and radio news writing, the lead sentence contains far less.
Here's the lead and second paragraph of an Associated Press story out of Baghdad:
"Violence killed at least 34 people, including a U. S. soldier, as efforts to finish choosing the new Cabinet bogged down Monday in a web of conflicting interests."
"Officials said Iraqi parties may look outside Parliament to find candidates for some key posts. Prime Minster-designate Nouri al-Maliki, a former Shiite political activist, has less than two weeks to come up with a Cabinet that meets the approval of a majority of the 275 members of Parliament."
The entire story , which was filled with lots and lots of details ran 11 column inches in length.
Here's how that same 11-inch long story might have been handled by broadcasters:
"It's been another bloody day in Baghdad….thirty-four dead….including a U. S. soldier.
The deadliest attack came as a car bomb exploded near an Iraqi court in the center of the city. The explosion killed five Iraqi citizens and wounded ten others. Two Iraqi policemen were killed…..12 people wounded…when another car bomb went off in eastern Baghdad.
The U. S. soldier died when a roadside bomb struck a military convoy southeast of the city.
As the violence continued…Iraqi government officials said they may look outside Parliament to fill some key Cabinet posts. The move is designed to break the deadlock over the make up of the new Cabinet and meet a constitutional deadline….now less than two weeks away."
Newspaper stories are written for the eyes. Broadcast reports are written for the ears. A newspaper reader can go back and re-read a sentence or a paragraph or an entire story. A listener or a viewer cannot. He or she must get it the first time. There are no second chances.
While newspaper stories can, and often do, contain complicated sentences, broadcast stories cannot. Simple, straight forward, declarative sentences are the broadcast norm. Simple words are best. Old simple words are even better.
Leads for broadcast stories serve the same purpose as a side show barker. This is true whether the entire story (a tell story) is read by the anchor or the anchor is reading a lead-in to a reporter's package (a complete story told by a reporter). Get them (the listener/viewer) into the tent (the story). If you can't hook them with the opening sentence, they may not hang around for the rest of the story!
Here are examples taken from actual news scripts used at the last TV station I worked for. The first are reporters' lead-ins followed by my suggested improvements. Leads need to be kept short and to the point.
My Lead :
When writing for broadcast, keep it clear, concise, and easy for the ear to catch. And finally, my writing motto under any circumstances: Think, write, proof.
Read Gene's IN article (May) Switching From Print To Broadcast Writing.
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