Righting Wrongs in Network News Scripts

If the world's principal product is mistakes, some network news programs are adding amply to the stockpile. One reason is, the news programs lack copy editors—full-time, sharp-eyed editors.

Who qualifies as a copy editor? Someone who can consistently nail no-no's: inaccuracies, inadequacies and inconsistencies.

Would you qualify as a copy editor? See for yourself:

"Unlike his mother and father--each have been married four times--Brown's been married only once...." (Lesley Stahl, CBS's "60 Minutes," Feb. 20, 2011.) Each is singular, so have should be has. The "60 Minutes" website lists more than 70 staff members in various categories, but not one is identifiable as a copy editor. If you're reading this article to check your EIQ (editing IQ), point out each mistake before you read my comment.

"The invader convicted today was an ex-con, and he could face the death penalty." (Diane Sawyer, ABC's "World News," Oct. 5, 2010.) He is an ex-con, and he'll always be one.

"And that issue also gets sensitive because there was also evidence presented today that some Muslim groups are discouraging Muslim-Americans to come forward." (Kelly O'Donnell, NBC's "Nightly News," March 10, 2011.) "To come forward" should be "from coming forward." Another problem: also twice in one sentence.

"The bacteria, which is similar to one found in the intestines of goats, was designed on a computer, manufactured in the laboratory, and gets its genetic instructions from a synthetic chromosome made by man, not nature." (Steve Kroft, "60 Minutes," Nov. 21, 2010.) Bacteria is the plural of bacterium, so bacteria is is wrong.

"From what you're about to see [in Libya] and what witnesses on the ground [where else could they be?] are reporting, those claims are false, untrue [doesn't false mean untrue?], incorrect, lies. We're keeping them honest." (Anderson Cooper, CNN's "AC 360," March 8, 2011.) If some of those claims are false, how can Cooper say he's keeping the liars honest? If they're honest, they're not liars. He probably punctuates a sentence or two every night with "We're keeping them honest." Nothing honest about it.

"Like a cat, the thief struck in the middle of the night...The robber broke in through a window, then cut a lock on a metal grate." (Miguel Marquez, "World News," May 20, 2010.) A cat doesn't break and enter. The intruder was a burglar, not a robber. A robber uses violence or threat of violence. A burglar usually breaks in.

"And we turn next to court hearings today in a story you think you only see in the movies." (Diane Sawyer, "World News," Sept. 27, 2010.) Only is misplaced. As the script reads now, it says you only see something; you don't edit it or narrate it. Should be: see only in the movies. News doesn't make me think of movies. Write the news without falling back on movies or song titles.

"Well, it might read like a crime thriller, but this was the real thing." (David Muir, "World News Saturday," March 5, 2011.) Rather than flirt with fiction, focus on facts—the real thing.

"A jury in Connecticut tonight is deliberating the fate of a convicted killer found guilty [convicted and found guilty?] of one of the most horrific crimes in memory...." (Lester Holt, "Nightly News," Nov. 7, 2010.) Then the correspondent spoke, and she ended her report by saying: "Tonight, jurors have gone home. The judge has ordered them to return tomorrow morning to resume deliberations." You be the judge: Can jurors be deliberating, as the anchor said, and at the same time not deliberating?

"They successfully crossed the English Channel in a Nissan pickup truck they [had] converted into an amphibious car." (Steve Kroft, "60 Minutes," Oct. 24, 2010.) Is it possible to cross the Channel unsuccessfully? Or climb Everest unsuccessfully?

"Now, bank investors are crying foul, too. A growing number who bought mortgage-backed securities is complaining the securities were full of bad loans to homeowners who couldn't afford them, made by bankers who should have known better." (Bill Whitaker, "Evening News," Oct. 20, 2010.) The problem: a number...is. As Mona Scott, author of Mrs. Bluezette's Grammar Guide, points out, if number is preceded by the, the verb that follows is singular, such as is. But if number is preceded by a, then number should be followed by are or another plural verb. The same rules apply to the nouns total and average.

"Originally sentenced to life, President Nixon reduced Calley's sentence." (David Muir, "World News Saturday," Aug. 22, 2009.) President Nixon wasn't sentenced to life. William Calley was sentenced to life. So originally sentenced to life is a dangling modifier. "Dangling modifiers occur when a sentence consists of a phrase that says something about a following clause—but the subject of that clause is not what it's supposed to be," according to Anne Stillman in her book "Grammatically Correct."

"I first met him three years ago at Facebook's old graffitied building in downtown Palo Alto. The company has since decamped to giant hangars nearby to accommodate their [its] explosive growth. The graffiti is largely gone...." (Lesley Stahl, "60 Minutes," Dec. 5, 2010.) Should be graffiti are. The singular is graffito; graffiti is plural. Another word whose plural is often treated mistakenly as a singular: paparazzi. The singular is paparazzo. Similarly, a member of the Mafia is a Mafioso; plural: Mafiosi.

"Okay, Martha Raddatz, reporting tonight as this is developing today." (Diane Sawyer, "World News," Oct. 22, 2010.) Huh? Tonight and today together like that are incompatible.

"He's one of the most famous scientists in the world, known for his pioneering work in deciphering the human genetic code. But he is also one of the most controversial, an iconoclast with a brilliant mind and an outsized ego who has flaunted the [delete the] conventional wisdom and tweaked the staid scientific establishment at every turn." (Steve Kroft, "60 Minutes," Nov. 21, 2010.) Flaunt means "to exhibit ostentatiously"; the word the script should have used is flout, which means "to treat with scorn."

"David Alvarez, Karil Kulish and Trent Kowalik, 15, 15 and 14, share the leading role in "Billy Elliot...." (John Berman, "World News," June 8, 2009.) After listeners hear those ages, how can they link the right age to the right name—and keep up with the flow of news? Listeners can't rewind mentally, so broadcast newswriters don't use respectively. One way to present those ages in a script: "Two 15-year-olds, David Alvarez and Karil Kulish—and a 14-year-old, Trent Kowalik...." Or "David Alvarez and Karil Kuish, both 15 years old...." But not "David Alvarez, 15"; that's newspaper style.

"Overseas tragedy in Cambodia today...and hospitals are filled to capacity." (Katie Couric, "Evening News," Nov. 22, 2010.) Overseas? Where else would Cambodia be? Tragedy is usually misused, as it is in that script. Every violent death is a "tragedy." So are many natural deaths. It's best to go ahead and just tell what happened. The journalist James J. Kilpatrick reminded us tragedy is "too powerful a word to be used in describing everyday misfortunes, accidents and deaths. Precisely employed, 'tragedy' involves some element of moral failure, some flaw in character, or some extraordinary combination of elements that produce a tragic consequence." The singer Beverly Sills said, "Let's keep tragedy in the opera, where it belongs." Also: filled to capacity is a redundancy. If something is filled, it's at capacity.

"When we come back here tonight, a story in the news, a tragedy, in fact, now has a lot of parents of athletes worried...." (Brian Williams, "Nightly News," Feb. 23, 2011.) Alas, more tragedy. If a story is in the news, it is news. Newscasts are expected to present news. Better: many parents rather than a lot of. Why is many better? It's shorter (slightly) and eliminates an of.

In the opening of a newscast: "A World War Two fighter pilot going back to Germany to find what he left behind...." Twenty or so minutes later: "And we end tonight with an incredible journey by a member of the greatest generation, a former bomber pilot who, 65 years ago, was shot down...." (Amy Robach, "Nightly News," Sept. 12, 2009.) That aviator must have been a quick-change artist: He began on the program as a fighter pilot but in less than a half hour he had became a bomber pilot. And someone in the newsroom bombed.

"What they've honed in on is faulty eyewitness testimony...." Lesley Stahl, "60 Minutes," March 8, 2009.) She meant homed in on. Hone means sharpen (as with a blade).

"Defense Secretary Robert Gates is making headlines tonight for something he said today in a speech to the corps of cadets at West Point...." (Brian Williams, "Nightly News," Feb. 25, 2011.) Sounds as though the anchor is trying to present a today story as a tonight story. In the headlines is generally used to signal listeners , "You're about to hear big news." But why waste time talking about headlines?

"You could just lay back and play basketball. Why is it so important for you to become successful in another area." (Steve Kroft, "60 Minutes," March 29, 2009.) Should be lie back. Lay takes a direct object: "Lay your cards on the table." Then the cards lie on the table.

"More nasty weather making news tonight." (Brian Williams, "Nightly News," Feb. 25, 2011.) Every story in a newscast is making news. That's why broadcasts dedicated to news are called newscasts. So go ahead and tell the news. Ever seen a newspaper run a page-one box saying, "This newspaper prints news"?

Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes network television news, alerted me to this ABC News presentation:

"And finally tonight, the secret side of a sensational icon, one of America's first pinup girls. Actress Jane Russell died yesterday at the age of 89. And David Wright learned more about her real life." (Diane Sawyer, "World News," March 1, 2011.) The secret side? Wright learned that Jane Russell had appeared in several movies, that she starred in "The Outlaw," that she co-starred in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and that she had undergone an abortion. But none of that was secret; it had all been reported by The Associated Press. Jane Russell herself told about the bungled abortion in her autobiography, published in 1985. Although Diane Sawyer had promised Jane Russell's secret side, the only secret was why Sawyer would tell viewers there was a secret side. Another ABC secret: both Katie Couric and Brian Williams reported Jane Russell's death 24 hours before Diane Sawyer did.

"Fouad, again, I appreciate you being with us all week, as you have been." (Anderson Cooper, "AC 360,) Feb. 25, 2011.) Should be "appreciate your being." The grammatical rule: A noun or pronoun (you) preceding a gerund phrase (being with us all week) should almost always be in the possessive case. (I disagree with the writer who says, "No one needs to know what a gerund is, except people taking a test that asks: 'What's a gerund?'") When Cooper ended his sentence with as you have been, he was committing what grammarians call a pleonasm: he was using more words than needed, saying what he had already said.

"Well, now that the president has publicly said he [Gadhafi] must go, it begs the question, is there somebody who's able to intervene, offer Gadhafi some kind of deal and get him out of there?" (Christiane Amanpour, "World News Saturday," March 5, 2011." Begs the question begs for correction. Apparently, she used begs the question in the belief it means raises the question. Wrong. Garner's Modern American Usage says begs the question means "to base a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself." Four days earlier, on ABC's "Good Morning America," she also misused beg the question.

All these script excerpts do raise a question: Why have so many newsrooms deleted copy editors?
© Mervin Block 2011

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