June 19, 2011 - A quiet revolution is going on behind the scenes in newsrooms nation-wide. The messengers are the coveted and feared TV news consultants who are called in to shake things up and evaluate what we do. They say we need to fundamentally reverse a serious problem that has detached journalists from the audience. Local TV news journalists don’t speak like regular people anymore.
This problem is so prevalent, that in the minds of viewers journalists are from another virtual reality and another world than everyone else.
Here is the uncomfortable and private conversation that consultants are having with newsrooms nation-wide. They try to be diplomatic about it, taking the approach from the viewer perspective. They start by directly attacking the journalists’ most personal and guarded trait: their writing.
“Have you ever heard of ‘Newslandia?” they ask.
“Well, most of the time we speak like normal people, but for a couple of hours every day we go to a special place we call ‘Newslandia.’ It is a place where we speak a special language called ‘Newslandic.’ No one else in the world speaks this language except for journalists.”
Anchors, producers and reporters have fallen into a trap, using worlds like “officials” and “authorities” instead of being specific and they use strange phrases like: “the suspect fled on foot.” When was the last time anyone said that speaking to another person? Another strange trait is that Journalists also speak in the ‘false present tense.’ That means a phrase meant to seem like it is happening now, but it really happened a while ago. Here are some examples:
“A fire burns as a family is choking inside.”
“A suspect running from police ends when he crashes into a pole.”
And my favorite: "A seal scrambles to safety as a burning sasquatch gnashes his teeth nearby.”
Journalists write these things despite them happening yesterday. It is inaccurate and disrespectful of the audience because it gives the sense that something is happening now, when it isn’t. Journalists do it because it’s exciting and easy. What is more difficult is finding the more recent developments in the same news. That would take real journalistic work.
But the way they write now, telling people that something is happening now, when it clearly isn’t is playing the audience for a fool and, according to the consultants, the audience isn’t fooled, they see right through it and what they really want is the most current information, not pretending that what happened yesterday is happening now.
The strange language is disastrous. Consultants say viewers are not impressed by "newslandic,” and they don't like it.
This strange language development in the field of professional broadcast journalism is pretty disturbing because journalism school across the country have been preaching the exact opposite for decades now: Write how you speak, conversationally.
This happens because aspiring Journalists who are fresh out of school are still mailable and they quickly forget the training, learning the newslandic language instead from their co-workers, copying esoteric language in police press releases and complicated, long sentences in wire copy written by AP reporters who are accustomed to writing for print.
So, if broadcast news TV managers want to turn things around, they have to start with the fundamentals, the writing and re-examine how they communicate with the public. This is a hard habit to break.
The consultants say it takes baby steps: “Writing is a very personal activity and we have to be sensitive to the way others feel about what they think is conversational and what is not.”
Since anchors are the ones who deliver the news, this language is the most embarrassing for them and impacts their image the most. So, they are the ones who should be the most concerned and "charged" with changing scripts as necessary to make them more conversational and remove the toxic ‘newslandic,’ the consultants said.
This language phenomenon isn’t confined to small-market TV. In some markets, the consultants are asking the stations to go through every script, all day, every day and search for, mark and chart "newslandic" phrases and language.
There is another reason for fixing the problem. There is evidence that language itself may be one of the reasons for shrinking tv news audiences. If you are looking for proof of the power of conversational writing, look no further than morning newscasts.
"Morning is the single most important day-part on this TV station," the consultants said. The consultants didn’t say this, but it is no coincidence that morning is the most conversational of all the newscasts.
The consultants did say that morning is the only newscast where the demographics are still growing. So, talk about this with your co-workers before the consultants do. You’re audience will thank you if you speak the same language as them. Think about it.