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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

Make a Mistake with Me

Writing is the heart of television news, but it takes a lot of practice to master. The ATVN newsroom or JOUR 203 are often the first place any Annenberg student is introduced broadcast writing.

I remember in my first semester as an assignment desk editor at ATVN, I had no idea how to write even a simple copy story. My writing was clunky and wordy and sounded more like an English paper than a news story.

In my first internship at WOAI-TV after my freshman year at USC, the producer assigned me to write a short VO (voiceover story in which the anchor reads over edited video) and it took me 45 minutes to interpret the wire copy and write it for the newscast. (The producer ended up rewriting most of it anyway.)

A few years down the road, with a lot and a lot of practice and coaching, I've grown into a strong, concise and conversational TV news writer. I've fallen in love with this medium in particular, because I enjoy writing stories the way I would tell them to my friends.

As a producer, I now face new challenges as a writer. I know I can write very solid broadcast copy under pressure. I've done it numerous times as a reporter, but the particularly tough part about being a producer is the constant stream of interruptions. In the 10 minutes it takes me to crank out a copy story or VO, I will be interrupted at least a dozen times for a dozen equally pressing matters, especially if it's late in the afternoon.

I'm still improving and learning every day, but the point of sharing my stories is to show that I went through a period of time during which I really loved broadcasting, but just didn't quite know how to do it yet. My personal journey of learning, practicing, succeeding and failing over the past four years now influences greatly how I do my job as a producer.

I know what it's like to need that extra help and guidance, so I try to accomodate for the fact that every member of my team writes at different paces and in different styles. Some are experienced upperclassmen, and others, like I was, are just volunteers who came to ATVN to learn. The one thing we all have in common is that we're here to better ourselves and create newscasts of which we can be proud.

This is my favorite quote from public radio host Ira Glass (This American Life). I read it whenever I'm having trouble getting a story just right or figuring out a concise, yet artful way to lay out complicated information. These few, but poignant sentences have helped me through many broadcasting challenges:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

― Ira Glass

At the top of this blog post, I said writing is the heart of good television. If writing is the heart, then copy editing is the brain. As a producer, we must think both broadly and in detail about our living, breathing newscast. Just as the heart can continue beating after a person becomes brain dead, we can put mediocre, mistake-ridden writing on the air, but it just doesn't bring the show to life.

In order for news to be compelling, informative and credible, every story must be checked and double checked for accuracy. As a producing team, I hope we can be more conscious and proactive about two kinds of copy editing: macro and micro. (Mind you, I've made this up from my own experience, so excuse me if I'm assigning terms to things that may be called something else in the Broadcast News Handbook or wherever.)

Macro editing is looking for content and digging deep into what we're actually telling our viewers. Did we get the most important, latest news at the top of the newscast and at the top of each story? Did we present all major sides to a story? Did we inform the viewer of something they need to know about their community, about their world?

Micro editing is all about the details. The little things, like spelling or pronouncing a person's name correctly and providing accurate stock results or sports scores, can add up if we let them fall through the cracks. Even the sharpest writers and eagle eye copy editors will inevitably miss a mistake, so it's important to have as many eyes read a story as possible. That's the whole point of being a team, right?

With that, I'll leave you with this song called "Make a Mistake with Me" by country music singer Brad Paisley.

He sings:

Nobody goes through this life and does
Everything perfectly
We're all gonna fail so you might as well
Make a mistake with me

This song reminds me, and I hope it reminds you, that life is imperfect and instead of fighting mistakes and becoming frustrated when things don't go exactly as we imagined, we should learn from these experiences and still come back every week and put our best foot forward.


It's always great watching ATVN students develop into confident, multi-talented professionals. Great job, Vicki, and congratulations to you and Bronte on your award!

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