Two annoying practices in broadcast news presentation are supposedly off-the-cuff dialogue that sounds as if it’s being read, and speech jammed with journalese. Both problems can occur any time but are typical when anchors question reporters or press them for further detail — a practice designed to produce an informal discussion of the news.
In the first case — supposedly impromptu remarks that seem read — the reporter sounds rehearsed. Viewers and listeners are made uncomfortable when what is offered as spontaneous seems scripted or artificial. Knowing that, reporters often begin their remarks with conversational hitches such as “well” or “um” in an effort to seem more natural. But then their words flow freely and seamlessly in the distinctive “reading aloud” monotone.
It’s a small matter, agreed, but nevertheless important because it also seems a small sham.
Of course, it’s good to plan our words, even to speak from notes. But presenting a written text as though it were speech takes special skill. The best defense against sounding as though we’re reading is to use in our notes only keywords — not complete sentences. Keywords remind us of what we want to say, but force us to formulate coherent statements about the subject. Complete sentences, on the other hand, tempt us to turn off thought and simply read.
Another defense against the reading aloud hazard is to speak from knowledge. Reporters who know their story very well and who have a logical sequence of keywords in their notes speak more forcefully, imaginatively and engagingly.
Once we can speak naturally on the air, we should turn our attention to our vocabulary. Both print and broadcast journalists face the problem of clichéd or hackneyed expression, but the problem is most acute for those who speak rather than write. They haven’t the luxury of a rough draft.
When anchors question reporters or press them for further detail, reporters have a rare chance to show personality and polish in their responses. But that situation also lays bare the vocabulary. Is it fresh or stale? Original or trite? Extemporaneous speech immediately exposes dependence upon journalese, the language of hacks.
It’s in unscripted speaking that we’re most likely to hear journalism’s stock expressions — threadbare nouns such as defining moment, worst-case scenario, cautiously optimistic, firestorm of criticism, heated debate, stunning victory, staggering defeat, chilling effect, ground swell, surprise move, bizarre twist, litany, laundry list.
Adjectives are equally stale: unprecedented, burgeoning, beleaguered, embattled. And so are verbs: spawn, spark, spur, trigger, target, decimate, escalate, spiral, launch, unleash, resonate.
One of the most overused expressions in broadcast news is getting or having a “sense of.” Consider this exchange between an anchor and reporter:
“Is it your sense that their outrage is genuine? I mean, that they had no … no sense that this spying was going on domestically?”
“No. I mean, yes. That’s my, uh, sense.”
We can hear that anchor struggling to find the word “idea,” rather than repeat the less meaningful word “sense.” But she fails. Likewise, we can hear the reporter’s discomfort with repeating yet again the word “sense.”
Dictionaries provide us with the meaning of the noun “sense” for such a context: a feeling, impression, or perception through the senses, as in a sense of warmth; or a generalized feeling, awareness, or realization, such as a sense of longing. So, getting a “sense of” is a flawed choice for contexts that demand concreteness or refer to factual, tangible matters such as numbers or amounts.
Despite that, we hear broadcast journalists asking: “Do you have any sense of how many were hurt or killed?” “Did you get a sense of how much this program would cost?” “Can you give us a sense of how the administration might react?”
Each of those questions has answers, and we don’t have to rely on our senses to find them: yes or no; they don’t know; the administration could react several ways. Could the questions be more gracefully and credibly put? Yes. Do you know? Did they say how much? How might the administration react?
Are there successful “sense of” constructions? Sure. Here’s one: “When interviewing the candidates, did you get a sense of hostility or distrust?” Here the abstract “did you get a sense of” is useful: We’re asking the reporter if he could “read” the candidates’ unspoken attitudes through his senses. It’s a valuable and aptly put question that could yield an interesting and insightful answer.
But we should reserve this overused expression for situations in which it best applies. Throughout history, the memorable and credible communicator has chosen plain talk over faddish terms. So should journalists, both print and broadcast.
Paula LaRocque, former Dallas Morning News writing coach, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and Championship Writing.