The cliche test, how to avoid them by asking 1 simple question

Our cliche list is still the most read section of Survive:  10 years later! So it seems like a good time to remind of a few ways to avoid cliche writing.

In the past, we’ve discussed trimming words away, to eliminate a cliche. We discussed reading copy aloud in order to figure out your favorite crutch phrases. We also talked about keeping a list on a notecard at your desk with three alternate phrases to help you get around your crutch phrases in a crunch

Survive is full of articles about how to write more conversationally as well. But this article is going to talk about a simple technique that frankly I am surprised hasn’t already come up in an article about cliche writing. It’s as simple as asking “Would you say that to your Mom?”

Yep, this question when writing, then scanning over your copy will catch so many errors, and especially cliches. It is a real tried and true technique veteran journalists have used many times over. And it bares repeating in an article on to itself. It is that effective.

You would not call your Mom and say “Hey there was a brutal murder and some residents nearby are scared.” You would not call your Mom and say “A blaze broke out two miles from the house.” Go down our cliche list, none of the phrases would be good for talking with Mom. None.

So let’s thank our parents for giving us a huge gift, teaching us the art of straightforward, conversational non cliche writing. They don’t use it on you. You don’t need to use it on the audience. So glad we had this talk 😉

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What does referencing video really mean?

If I had a dollar for every shot of generic video in a story, I would be rich, on the beach living the high life! It’s so common, it’s almost become accepted in the industry. And that’s a big mistake because generic video does nothing to help viewers trust that you know what you are talking about. It’s true. They can tell that you just slapped up some pictures hoping they would not really look. And nowadays, it’s just another reason to shake their head, grumble about fake news and look at social media instead.  Recently, CBS Evening News ran a correspondent story about air traffic controllers in New York who overheard a possibly terror threat on their frequencies. During the story about the New York-based controllers, there was a shot from inside an ATC tower looking out at what appeared to be Las Vegas, complete with its larger than life hotels and even mountains in the distance. This is the kind of thing that at worst confuses viewers and makes them question credibility and at best makes them wonder if a given news organization is “really that lazy.”

So how do you reference video, especially when you have no choice but to use generic shots? First, let’s define generic video. Generic video are images that are peripherally, but not always specifically, related to a story. Sometimes, generic video sticks out and seems to make little or no sense with the story. It’s video for video’s sake. And it’s a major danger zone.  That is especially true if you ask editors to “Just pad out the shots” to make sure the video doesn’t run out, or “just find me pics of people eating at a restaurant.” “Just show me avocados.” “I need video of a beach.” I have seen stations have advertising pulled over showing restaurant pics, that the chain viewed as identifiable during a food recall story. Same with images of produce. Is there a from Chile, or from Mexico sticker? These kinds of details have the potential to be hugely important. Even something as innocuous as pictures of a beach can create a fact error. Beaches in Hawaii do not  look the same as the ones in Florida or Maine and viewers DO notice. In other words, there is no such thing as generic video. Every image has a fact in it. Remember that.

So, let’s add this to the definition of generic video: It is images you are not mentioning in any way while the story is being read aloud. This is an important distinction because it gets to the core of this article: referencing video. You need to have the copy and video make sense together. Now, I did not say “match.” It’s just not realistic to pre-record every story that airs and sometimes the video is slightly ahead or behind the copy as it’s read. That’s not great, but better if the video is actually referenced in the telling of the story. 

A recent example I saw was a story of a man who worked at a religious day care center who was accused of molesting children there. The story showed the mug shot of the man, the sign of the place where he worked, a building (I assume is the same place??) and shots of an infant swing. Not great images to work with, right?  But with subtle writing references you can make it work, and not be generic and therefore confusing. Here’s how that can be done: “(mug shot) Name was arrested today, on child molestation charges. He worked at (show sign and say name of) daycare. (images of building and swing) You might recognize this building on and playground on (           ) street in (city). Police did not say what ages the children were in this case, but infants up to age 8 attend this daycare. (on camera) (name) faces 5 counts tonight. We will let you know what happens next in this case.”

I once had a news director require that we shot sheet every story in every newscast. The first couple of weeks I seriously thought my newscast would not make air. It took forever! But eventually I got the routine down and could still write quickly. With desktop editing so prevalent now, there is really little excuse to not write to video. This does not mean you have to shot sheet and reference every single image. I get that. But you can make sure that you at least reference the first shot seen, and if you add any file video, mention that it is past video, from whatever the source and/or time.

Also, as you are starting to teach yourself to write to video use these references:

 “As you see here”

 “you can see”

 “this is (_____)”

“here’s a good look at (_____)”

“take a look at (_____).”

These references can get cliche after a while, so you do not want to use them all the time everyday every story. But use them for a couple of weeks as you retrain your brain to think of images as you write your stories. They really help. As you get the hang of it, it’s easy to drop these catch phrases. 

Referencing video does not always mean that you have to overtly say what’s on the screen. Sometimes it’s just making sure that what the copy says plays off of the images. So referencing video is, truly, not as hard as it seems. Hopefully this article makes it easier for you, so you can start to reference more images in your stories. You want your newscasts and stories to stand out. You are writing for the ear, but also for the eye. Never forget that. Video needs to be part of the context of the story not a distractor.

Image by Josep Monter Martinez from Pixabay.

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Is Breaking News Cliche?

I recently posted a question on Twitter, “ Should ‘breaking news’ go on the cliche list at this point?” The amount of views on that post was tremendous. So let’s delve in a bit more shall we?

I get asked how and when to use the term breaking news a lot. For good reason. The term “breaking news” has taken on a wild and crazy life of its own in TV news. Its been a long ride. And just like some rides at Disney, it is time for an upgrade.

Breaking news is overused. There I said it. Especially by cable news outlets and some local broadcasting groups. The thinking is if you state immediacy viewers cannot help but watch. Problem is, when you really think about it, most breaking news on TV is dated, compared to digital news. The very fact that newscasts are on at set times, ruins the appeal of using “breaking news” in most stories. (Even cable outlets have set viewers for set time slots.) In fact, viewers know you are likely just exaggerating. Just look at studies about credibility and TV news.  

 Digital is changing things for sure, and it begins with the use of the term breaking news as a crutch to try and get viewers to stick around and consider newscasts relevant because its “breaking” information.

Especially when you look at the definition of cliche:  A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. (Dictionary of Oxford Languages) This one by Merriam-Webster makes the point more clear: a trite phrase or expression.  In other words, used so much that it has become boring, and perhaps lost its original meaning.

Viewers who tend to like news, tend to also look at digital resources. Yes this can even include some Boomers.  Especially with more newspapers offering less expensive digital formats than getting the paper thrown into the driveway each morning. So these viewers, are seeing through the gimmick that “breaking news” has turned into. Its become boring, unoriginal and frankly, not worth tuning in for. 

If everything is breaking then nothing truly breaks. Memorize that mantra. 

So let’s give “breaking news” that makeover it so deserves. First, a made for TV definition: Breaking news is news that started happening during your newscast, and new elements are continuing to present themselves. You are sharing information that has not made air before in other newscasts. This is information you are gathering, right at that moment. 

So if a newsworthy event happened two hours before your show, then ended before your show is it breaking? NO. It was breaking for digital two hours ago if you have a kick butt team in that section of your newsroom. But for TV, no. Instead think: latest developments. The story is new since the last newscast, and the goal is to continue to expand on key facts while you are on the air. You are filling in the viewer. It is new, but not breaking.

Is Covid breaking news? There are constant new elements presenting themselves all day each day if you really think about it. I am going to argue, proceed with caution. Breaking news, feels like a gimmick to casual viewers. (The regulars likely tune out the labeling period, still no benefit to you.) So happening right now, or latest update or developing can work in this scenario. Or you could avoid all of these “news branding” phrases and just say what is going on. Viewers still assume you are at least trying to bring them “new” information in a newscast. They give you some points for that effort still. Why not use that to your advantage and save time and energy just telling them the facts without a label at all? In terms of Covid so much is happening, it feels like a tidal wave. The viewers need something to cling on to, perspective. New information isn’t always enough to satisfy audience needs.

Breaking news can have a place in the newscast, but to me it should at least be a strong contender for the cliche list. Avoid. Focus instead on just consistently updating stories, so everything is new. Viewers expect that and frankly many take it for granted. Labeling things new and breaking constantly can shine light on the fact that the rest of your content is likely old. Especially in the digital age. By focusing less on the label, and more on the information itself you will gain more trust with the viewer. 

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How to figure out what should be in your TV story vs your digital story.

This is a million dollar question in a lot of ways:  How do I figure out what should be in a TV story vs a digital story? There are teams of researchers, consulting groups, and higher ups in the broadcast industry weighing this question every day. But you are a journalist, and you have to turn stories everyday right now while they ponder the future digital universe. So let’s lay out some common sense ground rules. 

Necessary TV Elements:

Wide Impact

Strong visual and/or emotional elements

DMA Impact

Timeliness, especially if ongoing

Necessary Digital Elements:

Immediacy

Impact

Strong visual and/or emotional elements

Great Why or How elements

Great extra nuggets of information surrounding ongoing story 

These lists look awfully similar right? The key differences are subtle but important.

Let’s jump into the TV elements list first. Wide Impact tops the list for a big reason, TV viewers are getting more finicky. We used to be able to just grab hyper local elements to fill up our local news sections and be fine. Not as easy now though. Viewers are likely two screening when watching TV so if a story or two bores them, you lost them to the other screen! So while remaining largely local, the story has to impact a lot of people. Let’s discuss the meaning of impact. That doesn’t mean a direct effect on the person watching necessarily. It can also mean a strong universal type tie. Think heartbreaking stories. My family isn’t impacted, but I sure care about the other family. Or I sit and thank my lucky starts that’s not my family. Just getting nitty gritty here. That’s why emotional elements are so crucial. 

TV news needs strong visuals in its stories. The goal is for every story. That’s not always realistic, but try as much as possible. Especially in this day of big monitors and telestrations and 2d graphics. Discussing the visual impact of the story is as big as the community impact when considering a TV news story.

DMA impact is a little different but very key. There are times especially if you are the third or fourth place station that you want to cater to an underserved audience in your DMA. This helps serve the community better as journalists, and can help bring up ratings. These are important discussions to have to make sure TV stories are truly considering the entire audience, not just a chosen few. (Which can get into the whole idea of not just choosing stories you personally care about to cover. Your opinion is one opinion. Never forget that as a journalist.)

Timeliness is also very important. But this is going to sound half crazy to some, it needs to emphasize more developing type stories, instead of just breaking news. Why? Because digital does breaking news better unless it is a HUGE event in which you are in continuous coverage. Admit that and you will start to produce more relevant stories for your viewers. It is too hard for TV to beat digital. Breaking news desks need to cater to digital first. But you cannot put clearly dated stories into newscasts. That’s where strong data driven journalism is starting to come into play. You have started hearing broadcast groups mention that they want to focus on hard hitting investigative journalism locally. That’s smart. That’s going to provide the key information that will drive audiences to a TV newscast. I want to see that reporter I trust spell it out for me. Then I can research more and see if I agree. That’s what journalism was about for a long time. But TV news went too heavy into pictures and immediacy and not enough into impact. That’s what hurt TV. It’s time to go back to the basics, with a little more showcasing savvy than TV news of the 80’s for example.

Now the digital list. Immediacy is first for obvious reasons. You check your phone to see what’s happening right now. What if I missed something? Due to content constantly changing people are constantly checking. That doesn’t change for local news. You have to have new elements all the time that make sense. Immediacy.

Impact is next. Just grabbing breaking news from all over the world will not impress local audiences. Research shows this for TV viewers and it is not different for internet users for local TV news websites. I promise you do not do it as well as HuffPost/Politico etc.  Focus on what the audience wants. Local stories that could make a difference for them or someone they know. 

Strong visual and/or emotional elements. Think Instagram mentality here. You go on the app thinking you have 15 minutes to burn and an hour later, you are still looking at posts. Same with Pinterest. Give them great information they can relate to and suck them in with a great image or video. The human brain cannot resist. 

Great why and/or how elements are crucial too. It can be really hard to catch everything stated on TV. Consumers are grabbing their phones, starved for more information. They can read the digital story more than once. They can highlight words and research more things. They can really get into the nitty gritty of stories and subject matter they want to understand. This is where we journalists can inform, teach and frankly be relevant again. Give them the facts they crave. Delve into what so many feel is so hard to get right now, understanding.

Sometimes that understanding is a whole series of special reports. Sometimes it is simply the last element of our digital story list:  extra nuggets of information on a developing story. This is especially true if your next newscast is not for hours. Keep covering the most relevant stories. Add elements, even a few lines with an updated time stamp under the byline. It helps you get more clicks, more loyalty and more impact. And extra nuggets are usually easy to find and explain. These often become the old “water cooler” elements that people want to share with friends and coworkers. Especially now that everyone wants to show they are in the know and frankly relevant themselves. The psychological draws of digital are crucial to consider throughout your story selection process.

Hopefully these guidelines will make your day to day job a little easier while the big wigs duke it out over who has the big answer to digital. 

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