TV Consultant Tells Clients to Make News Sound Urgent

A new blight is blanketing the land: broadcast scripts injected with nowness. The blight has spread because so many newscasters are trying to make news seem fresher than fresh.

Many anchors do that by presenting news, no matter its age, as breaking news, developing news, or happening now. Even when those labels are true, they're now clichés. The biggest problem with breaking news and happening now is that they're often untrue. Often enough to make all such usage suspect.

New is already a key word in the minds of newscasters intent on making a story seem newsier. That leads to new developments, new information and new details. And there's a new emphatic twofer: new right now. Sure enough, at least one consultant is urging TV stations to give stories a sense of urgency.

The putative father of new right now is a TV consultancy, SmithGeiger of Westlake Village, near Los Angeles. They give clients a three-page list of words and phrases intended to grab viewers by the ears.

The title of SmithGeiger's handout is "Changing the language of the newscast." It says: "Your voice, your attitude, your energy can make stories urgent…so do the words you choose. The language we use in the newscast is often a key part of conveying that we have the very latest, that our newscast has the news that is happening now….

"Each person who touches copy needs to challenge themselves to constantly find the right words that will capture the sense of immediacy and urgency we know viewers are demanding of us." [As for the use of themselves in a sentence like that, Paul R. Martin, author of the Wall Street Journal stylebook, recently wrote: "In attempts to sidestep the pronouns he, him and his, writers increasingly are using the gender-neutral plural pronouns they, them and their after singular nouns to avoid seeming sexist. Instead they seem illiterate." As for viewers' "demands," I don't know any viewers who demand urgency.]

The SmithGeiger three-pager goes on to suggest: "Now, new, just, rapidly developing, breaking…those are just the basic ingredients. Mixing them up with a range of other words and topics can make for a rich vocabulary that leads to legitimate news urgency."

The advisory goes on to list "words and phrases to consider using to help reflect and promote urgency and a ‘happening now' feeling in a newscast." A partial list:

  • live [live is worked to death]
  • update
  • updated information
  • we begin with breaking news tonight
  • breaking news just coming in to our newsroom

On page 2, SmithGeiger lists more phrases intended to make the news so red-hot it sizzles:

  • we do have some breaking news right away [yes, that's what it says]
  • rapid developments
  • this story is rapidly changing
  • you saw it here first just minutes ago
  • we are going to be covering this live for you
  • breaking overnight [huh?]
  • you are looking live [double huh?]
  • we are just getting started
  • but first we begin with
  • all new
  • new right now
  • new developments are unfolding
  • we are watching with you these first pictures live from the scene
  • this is a rapidly developing situation [George Carlin pointed out that everything is a situation; we're in one now]
  • breaking as we go on air
  • you'll hear in just seconds
  • take a live look behind me [any idea what that means?]
  • but after we told you…we kept asking
  • we've been talking about this in the last hour
  • we want to give you the very latest
  • we are going to stay on this story every step of the way
  • we have new information for you as soon as anything happens
  • we are following this closely and are making sure you don't miss anything
  • we are going to stay on this story night and day
  • we are not stopping with our coverage until this story is done

SmithGeiger wraps up its advisory with this: "Remember to always promise an update and/or continuing coverage of a breaking news story."

But not everyone is enamored of the injection of breaking news into newscasts. WDRB-TV, a Fox affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky, recently said the use of breaking news is a "marketing ploy" and an "advertising trick." Breaking news, it said, is "seldom actually breaking—and quite often isn't even news."

WDRB's general manager, Bill Lamb, in a later "Point of View" broadcast by WDRB, said breaking news is "a lie and deception" and "pretty much of a joke." TVSpy quoted Lamb as saying: "All three of our competitors in Louisville lean on ‘breaking news' as though they invented it. It is in their slogan, it is forced into every newscast as often as possible, and it is a marketing gimmick intended to mislead the public into thinking that they are really there when news is breaking."

WDRB also told viewers, "We will use the term ‘breaking news' judiciously, assuring that when used it refers to a story that is both ‘breaking' and ‘news.' We will not use the term as a marketing gimmick."

Mike Cavender, the executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, wrote in RTDNA's Weekly Rundown last week:

"Many TV stations do themselves little good in the public trust arena because they're emphasizing many of the wrong things. Instead of promoting the news itself, they spend far more time shouting shop-worn phrases like ‘breaking news,' when most of it isn't, or being ‘live' from everywhere, even when there's nothing happening…."

Diane Sawyer of ABC News is one of the most frequent network users of breaking news. And she's also a frequent user of another way of saying breaking news: "Good evening. As we come on the air tonight…." Apparently, that's supposed to make a story newer than new. In just one week last month, she began four of her newscasts that way.

She unloosed a double-barreled presentation of newness and nowness on Oct. 9, 2012: "And now we have some breaking news to tell you about tonight. [So why not go ahead and tell us—instead of taking the time to tell us you're going to tell us?] Just as we came on the air, new details from the State Department…." Another heavy user of breaking news is her fill-in as anchor of World News, David Muir.

The first use of as we come on the air tonight has been attributed by the database Factiva to Brian Williams, anchor of NBC's Nightly News. Date: Aug. 26, 1998 But he uses it only about once a year.

Scott Pelley, anchor of CBS's Evening News, has been using breaking news about twice a month.

The heaviest users of breaking news and/or happening now are CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Carol Costello and Jake Tapper. Examples of Blitzer's and Cooper's usage (mostly misusage) can be found in "Weighing Anchors," a book written by me.

Breaking news, my foot. Happening now, my other foot.

© Mervin Block 2013


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