Almost as deadly to a news report as cliches is jargon, the specialized terms used by certain occupations or groups. And as the world gets more complex every day, so does the temptation to lard a story with technical terms, legalese, bureaucratese, and bafflegab.
Among the terms to avoid in news copy: bottom line, conceptualize, feedback, infrastructure, optimize, and parameter. Hundreds more such words and phrases sneak into news stories. Be vigilant. Keep such terms out of your copy.
Police stories offer the greatest temptation for journalists to start talking like cops. Police may say "two male perpetrators fled on foot from the robbery scene after dropping a bag of a controlled substance," but for our story let's say "police say they are searching for two men who ran away after robbing a liquor store and dropping a bag of cocaine."
Avoid the police term "suspect," but if you must use it, remember it applies only to specific, identified individuals. Our liquor store robbers are not "suspects" until police identify them. And victims are taken to hospitals; let the police use "transported."
We must distill legalese to terms ordinary people can understand. A few years ago, two big dogs killed a woman in an apartment complex. A news report said the owner of the dog was charged with "having a mischievous animal that killed a human being." That's probably how the statute reads and how the district attorney described the charge. But we have to simplify that. "Charged with keeping a vicious dog" is accurate and will be understood by our audience.
When police do catch suspected bad guys and put them in jail, they write a report about the violations their police work has uncovered. The district attorney then reads the report and decides whether to file charges. We can write "police say" or "police booked the man on armed robbery charges." Weshould avoid the temptation to insert "allegedly" or "reportedly," two words a journalist can go an entire career without using. Many journalists use "alleged," "allegedly" and "reportedly," thinking these words provide some sort of protection, a legal pillow of sorts, under their story. They do not and the reporter who thinks so sooner or later will learn a hard lesson in libel from a "suspect's" lawyer.
Finally, when those two men we talked about earlier are arrested for robbery and go to court to be formally charged, let's say that instead of "arraigned," another legal term non-lawyers are apt to confuse.
These are vague or softened expressions used in place of words that some might consider unduly harsh. And in these ever more politically correct times, the list of euphemisms is growing swiftly.
So we have few poor people these days but we do have many of low income. Some of these low-income people may attempt to get into affordable housing, which is correctly called subsidized. Whether they get their house or not, they never will grow old but instead will evolve into senior citizens. And none of their children will be lazy students but they may have a learning disability.
We want to be sensitive to the groups we are reporting on but not to the extreme of obscuring the true meaning of what we write.
It's all right to call a "rest room" or "comfort station" a toilet.
It's OK to refer to an "account executive" as a salesman or saleswoman.
It's fine to use garbage collector instead of "sanitation engineer."
Give listeners and readers a clear basis for visualizing something. Years ago, hundreds of reports were written and broadcast about some mudslides in Southern California. All described the slides as "massive." Well, how big is "massive?" How much does it take to make something "huge?"
Take the extra reporting step and find out how much mud actually came down. Even if you only can get an estimate - "enough to fill 30 freight cars" - that'5 better than "massive."
"More than" and "1ess than" almost always can be replaced with "about." On'2 less word and it's more accurate.
Next month in our final installment: Real people in real conversations rarely use as many hackneyed phrases as journalists do in their scripts or in print. See how many cliches you can find in our one-act play.
Jeff Rowe has been a journalist since 1975, reporting and producing news for television, radio, newspapers, magazines and online publications. He's been a broadcast writer for the Associated Press, a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, and broadcast editor for The Orange County Register. His articles appear frequently here in SVN. His book, Broadcast News Writing for Professionals is used in high school and college journalism classes.It is available in soft cover from Marion Street Press.