Broadcast Journalism: How TV Reporters Write the News
Learn to write for real eyes and ears
Unlike other forms of writing, broadcast journalism follows a unique arrangement of storytelling. It is not similar to its journalism counterparts, which is broadsheet and online.
Consequently, in broadcast journalism media, there is also a distinct writing style for AM radio, FM radio, television, and documentary.
But in this article, I will solely discuss the writing style used by television news reporters. You also have to know that a reporter’s script is different from the producer’s writing.
Well, that is a good idea for the next article. However, for this one, I will merely focus on the basics of a reporter’s news script. You might find this article like a crash course, which also suitable if you are planning to put up an online news channel website.
The Inverted Pyramid
In journalism school, one of the introductory topics your professors will teach you is the “Inverted Pyramid.” This technique is not complicated and can also be used in other mediums of writing. Such a method is proven effective in conveying a narrative since the 20th century.
So, I decided to discuss this one here too, albeit briefly.
Inverted pyramid created by the author
Compared to writing a book where the story goes through a series of events, climax, and ending. In journalism, based on the inverted pyramid image above.
Reporters give essential information at the top of the story, which is called the “lead.” The lead addresses the five fundamental questions of who, what, why, where, when, and how in your story.
By putting all the critical facts immediately, the attention of the readers or audience is captured. The lead will be followed by more details down to supporting information to finish the narrative. Remember, the readers may stop reading your articles in the mid-section of the story.
Therefore, placing the most crucial information in the lead already serves the news purpose.
On television, we also use this storytelling technique. However, unlike in print and digital, we write our news like a script. Though, the dialogue is not creative expression but information.
The Two Senses: Seeing and Hearing
In writing a script for television news, the reporter needs to consider the audio and visuals of the story. If you have no support footage or picture for a particular sentence that you will write, it's better to remove it. Also, it does not matter if the visual is actual or archive footage.
It can be a social media video, a moving picture, a document, or an illustration as well. The only goal here is when you write it, there should be a visual for it. Below is the typical sample of a reporter’s script:
Created based on the story of Euro News Now
The partition of audio and video in a reporter’s script is a must. Hence, a reporter also needs to include which portions of the script he/she needs to voice over [VO]. It is also required to insert the interviewee’s sound bite, which is known as sound on tape [SOT].
Accordingly, to make the story more raw and appealing, reporters incorporating a natural sound bite [NATSOT] in the script.
In real life, a reporter’s script is more intricate. Personally, the way I do mine is to input the sound bites’ in and out running time [RT]. My strategy then, to make my life hell a lot easier, I sync my watch to my crew’s camera.
Therefore, when we cover a two-hour press conference, I can jot down the time as a guide, particularly on controversial soundbites.
So, when I write my story, my running time and the footage matches. By doing so, it refrains me from rewinding an entire press conference once again. For reference, this is how I do it:
Created based on the story of Global News
Another importance of incorporating running time is for remote editing. Consequently, the video editor would be able to use these codes for faster cuts and jump cuts. It is also important to include the name and the position of your subject or interviewee because the production people will show it on screen through a character generator [CharGen] while airing.
Now, if you wanted to have a little exposure on your news package, then do a spiel. In television, we commonly called it “standuppers.”
Reporters are encouraged to do a standupper in the middle or closing portion of their news package. If you are going to do it, include that as well in your script.
Make sure to insert the location where you did your spiel as this would also get flashed on TV. The purpose of this is to show the audience that you were present at the event, which adds credibility to you and the program. Check the sample below:
Created based on the story of NBC News
Always remember that creating a news script for television is writing for your audience’s eyes and ears. This what makes TV reporters stand apart from their journalism peers. Once they are on the field, they write what they see and what they hear, which resonates very well with the audience.
Short Sentence for Conversational Tone
Reading aloud is highly suggested in writing a news script. Such a practice ensures that the texts flow like a discussion.
Unlike in broadsheet and online articles, wherein a reader can repeatedly go back to the text for better comprehension. The television audience gets only one chance to absorb your story on-air. There is no rewind on TV. Therefore, the key is to make your script sounds like you are talking to a friend.
For instance, you have a crush on someone, and you are dying to tell your best friend about it. How do you tell her the news? I bet you are not saying too many flowery words. Instead, you will say it like this, “I like this guy in my history class. He is so cute.” Then, you will show her this guy’s Instagram photos.
That’s just it. You used short, simple, and straightforward sentences. Hence, showing a photo of your crush substantiates your story. This is exactly how we write news on television. Natural and conversational.
Use Present Tense, Avoid Passive Voice
Television news is very timely. The airing for a 6:00 p.m newscast needs to sound fresh, even though the coverage occurred eight hours ago. The audience tuning in to the program must experience the story as though it is unfolding now. You have to make them feel that they are witnessing the current event too.
So, instead of writing it like this: “In a press conference this morning. Joe Biden formally announced his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, for the upcoming election.” You might want to try this one: “Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate for the election. The announcement was made this morning.”
Using the latter example signifies that the present tense creates a better enticing subject rather than the past tense. Therefore, the audience was immediately hooked to the news, which is the television’s primary goal, glued people to the screen.
Moreover, the use of passive voice is discouraged. Refrain from keeping the audience waiting. It is not a movie plot. It is news. Therefore, instead of saying, “the bomb was dropped by the air force,” write it as, “the air force dropped the bomb.” By doing this, the sense of urgency is highlighted.
Estimate the Numbers
On television, there are some instances that numbers are part of the story. Notably, on business news. But instead of including the exact figures on the script, reporters merely write estimations. Besides, the precise numbers are reflected on-screen through a graphic.
Therefore, do not write this way: “the Department of Health was only given a budget of ten million, five hundred forty thousand, six hundred eighty-seven dollars this year. Compared to the twenty million one hundred thirty-four thousand, and four-hundred fifty dollars last year.”
Whew! I even ran out of breath by just typing that. Imagine the agony that this kind of writing can bring to your audience. I implore you, don’t.
So, how do reporters write it? They estimate like this: “the Department of Health only received ten-and-a-half million dollars this year. Half of the budget got slashed, compared to what they acquired last year.” See, it is more pleasant to the human ears. Writing appraisals in the news report aim to evade confusion.
So the audience won’t lose their interest.
Stay on Top of the Story
Controversial issues are commonly running stories, such as a presidential campaign. In writing these kinds of coverage, ensure that you are on top of it. Wrap your story with a teaser, telling your audience what will happen next. It gives the viewers something to look forward to.
As a reporter, you are also projecting yourself that you have a more in-depth knowledge of the issue.
Check this particular video below, and fast forward it to 2:12.
Video credit: YouTube | CBS Evening News
In the video, you have seen how CBS reporter Ed O’Keefe delivered his closing spiel. He particularly mentioned, that on the next day, Biden and Harris would have their first joint appearance in Delaware. He was reassuring the viewers that there is an important event that will happen tomorrow, and CBS News will be there to cover, and he is on top of this story.
Such information keeps the audience to stay tuned to the network to get updates on this political story. That is how you implicitly tell the audience to keep on watching.
Writing news for television requires daily exposure to it to get familiarized with the process. When I entered the industry in 2008, it took me two hours to finish my first news script, at that time, writing with visual and audio baffles me. Hence, I did not yet have a strategy on how to make my job more manageable.
Good thing, my beat then was entertainment. Therefore, the story is not time-sensitive. After finishing my first script, I submitted it, and it was shredded.
I kid you not. Also, I did not get comments nor suggestions on how to make it proper. I kept revising it until one editor was helpful enough to assist me in making my script tolerable. When it was finally accepted, the producer did not allow me to voice my story. I was a neophyte.
Therefore, the producer was not confident that I could do it. So, they asked a much senior reporter to do the voice over on my behalf. I finally had my first opportunity in my fifth story.
Having said that, I simply want to let you know that television is a cut-throat industry. However, it does not take a unique qualification to be part of it.
Suppose you are interested in working as a broadcast journalist on television, then this article will help you. Utilize this basic knowledge as a guideline in writing your news scripts. Keep in mind, you are writing for the audience's eyes and ears.
Communications & PR Specialist | NZAid Fellow | MA Intl. Dev. | Ex Reporter for TV5 & Bloomberg TV-PH | Former Editor-in-Chief of the Philippine President | Toastmaster | Freelance Contributor | Storyteller of Life & Love