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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

Getting It Right

Clear, conversational and concise writing is the foundation of a quality newscast, and the best way to write a great story is to first understand it.

Whether it's the top story of the day, breaking news or even a fun kicker to end the show, we should aim to tell our viewers the best possible version of the story, not just the most convenient.

Under tight deadlines and in the chaos of the newsroom, it's easy to take the easy way out. There is a temptation to skim the headlines, browse the wire copy and just watch a few seconds of video. While this saves time in the short term, it's actually a trap, because it is much harder to write a story with only a superficial understanding of it.

With as little as 15 to 30 seconds to tell a story sometimes, our job is to sift through a lot of information and deliver the most critical facts and latest information to our audience. To do so, we must know the story.

One of the most important ways to understand the story is to read the wire copy thoroughly. Taking the extra five to 10 minutes to research, read and highlight important elements really does pay off in the end. If there's something that's hard to understand, sometimes some extra research is exactly what is needed to inspire our writing and give our viewers context for the newest information.

For example, this week, we reported a story about James Holmes, the suspect in the Aurora theater shooting. The story was a big development in the case. We only had a short 30 second voiceover to explain the legally-nuanced story. Essentially, his lawyers announced Holmes would plea guilty to avoid the death sentence. But, the tricky part of the story is that the announcement was only a plea offer made to the prosecution, not a formal plea deal. The deal had not been formally accepted by the prosecution, so our writing had to reflect the ongoing nature of the story. We had to explain that the trial was still scheduled, since the offer had not been accepted. Without a thorough reading of the wire copy and basic understanding of the American judicial system, it would be very easy to trip up over this story. I think we did a great job in the end.

Another story was about a cancer study in which researchers discovered DNA markers that could help researchers and doctors more accurately predict a person’s chance of developing cancer. The first version of the story that was written was very vague. The multimedia journalist on the story asked for some guidance, so together we read through the entire news wire story. From this, I better understood the story too. To help us brainstorm a better way to write the story, I told her to think about answering questions that she would ask herself. How legitimate is the study? (i.e. How many people were studied?) What does this research mean for people who are worried about cancer? After doing this exercise to delve into the details, the second version of the story was much more clear, informative and interesting, and therefore more valuable to our audience.

Last but not least, it’s extremely important to check the news wires for any updates throughout the day. It's always a relief when we can finish stories early in the day, but the beauty and limitation of a 6 pm newscast is if anything changes anytime before the story airs, we must update it with the latest information.

Ultimately, quality writing really is the cornerstone of a top-notch newscast. Without it, our audience might as well just skim headlines on Google News or scroll through Twitter. We have the ability and responsibility to be storytellers and our audience deserves to feel engaged and informed. Our shows will really shine if we each take the time to invest ourselves in the stories and make the effort to understand both the details and the big picture.

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