Wednesday, August 27, 2008

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. jessica.grilla...@cambriancollege.ca

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