The 10 rules of writing news for television
By Jessica Grillanda
If you think television news is simplistic, cliché and shallow, there are many examples to prove you right. It conjures images of anchors with bob cuts giving the “Coles Notes” on the day’s car crashes and town fairs. But when it’s done right, television is more than aesthetics and abbreviations.
Television is the most powerful medium available to newsmakers. Did you just wait to read about the collapse of the Twin Towers in the paper the next day? Television can deliver the moving images, sounds and stories that affect our lives and those of people half a world away.
Getting it right takes much more skill than weaving a good tale, recording bed sound or capturing emotive close-ups. It takes synchronizing all these elements into a cohesive story that appeals to both the eyes and ears.
Here are a few tips for students on producing a television news story to prove the “print snob” wrong.
#1 YOU CAN ONLY TALK FOR AS LONG AS YOU HAVE IMAGES
News is the story you tell. In television, the story can’t be told without images to cover it. It sounds simple, but a good television piece is planned well before you hit the record button on your camera. If it’s important to explain—“David Pearson is the science director of Science North in Sudbury. He is also a leading researcher in Ontario on climate change”—you need visuals to cover your words. Plan ahead and ensure you shoot not just your interview but sequences of Pearson studying weather charts or giving a talk on the subject.
#2 DON’T EXPECT YOUR AUDIENCE TO READ THE SUPER
Okay, you forgot. Can you just put a subtitle that says, “David Pearson—Science Director and Climate Change Researcher— Sudbury”? Yes, but only if your audience doesn’t need to know who he is. If your subject needs no introduction (e.g., Jane Doe on the street thinks the potholes are too big), then by all means put up a super. But you can’t count on your viewer to watch, listen and read simultaneously.
#3 IMAGES SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS
Images can be deafening. If your visuals do not support your words, your audience will remember the visuals but not the news. If you are explaining how faulty wiring led to a blaze while showing video of the charcoal remains of a house, don’t expect your audience to pay attention to your well-researched details. If you say it, show it.
#4 DON’T SAY WHAT THE PICTURES DO, SAY WHAT THEY DON’T
Nonetheless, don’t waste your time trying to say what the pictures already do. What insight does your audience gain by showing a quiet suburban neighbourhood and then saying, “This is a quiet suburban neighbourhood”? Give your viewers the information to understand why they are looking at those photos. “This is the first murder on record in Sleepytown.”
#5 REFER TO YOUR IMAGES
Just because you aren’t describing your images doesn’t mean you shouldn’t refer to them. If you show us a set of closed doors, tell us “The meeting is taking place behind THESE doors.”
#6 BUT AVOID CLICHE
You show a shot of a group of kids at a fair with a clown and then say, “Kids are clowning around….” The pun is fun, and feels like genius in the edit suite after a long day of work, but it usually detracts from the news.
#7 TIMING MATTERS
If you are doing a story on water pollution and say, “The toxic soup goes in here and comes out here,” plan your images to change at the precise time your sentence takes a turn. Synchronizing your words with your images may take some rewriting, but ensures your audience is following with both its eyes and ears.
#8 SOMETIMES IT’S BETTER TO LET PICTURES SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES
Time is a luxury in television news and your impulse may be to cram as many words into that two-minute story as possible. But then, your audience would rather just watch the figure skater’s triple-axis finale. When images speak loudly, you shouldn’t try to talk over them.
#9 DON’T FORGET SOUND
Television is an audio-visual medium, so don’t forget the audio. Before you tell us, “And with that Canada took the gold in figure skating,” let us listen to the crowd erupt in applause. Your pictures and sounds tell the story too. Don’t compete with them.
#10 BUT ABOVE ALL… YOU ARE DELIVERING THE NEWS
Sequences and script timing and natural sound don’t matter if you don’t cover the 5 Ws. When you are finished your piece, sit back and ask yourself whether you told the story. That’s your job.
Jessica Grillanda is coordinator of broadcast-new media at Cambrian College in Sudbury. email@example.com