Not the stories that came with those labels attached, but the way they’re written. It’s shocking how many worthless adjectives are being crammed into the average newscast! Tragic to think that many writers may not know better. And unbelievable that nothing is being done about it.
Television newscasts these days are awash in hyperbole. Could that be one reason the audience is floating away? Listen to almost any news program, network or local, and you’re bombarded with words and phrases so overused that they have become meaningless. In a 15-minute span one morning, reporters and anchors on one channel promised “stunning new developments” that weren’t in the least bit astonishing, described a Vatican gathering of visibly delighted Cardinals as a “solemn ceremony,” and discussed the possible punishment for a “heinous crime” without ever mentioning what had actually happened.
This kind of writing violates a bedrock principle of broadcast news: It is better to show than to tell. “You can say she’s a devoted mother, or you can show a child jumping into her lap,” says Mike Mather, a reporter at WTKR-TV in Norfolk, VA. “Which is more effective?”
Great writers seek and use specific details, not shopworn generalities, to convey information and emotion. Instead of telling the listener there’s been a tragic fire, provide the facts: Six members of one family were killed. The only survivor is a six-month-old boy, burned beyond recognition. And it happened on Christmas morning. Let the listener decide if that’s tragic.
Boyd Huppert, a reporter at KARE-TV in Minneapolis, put this principle into practice in a story about a spreading grass fire. Instead of telling viewers that the situation was frightening, Huppert described the scene through the eyes of the fire chief: “He had men out there, and he couldn’t see them.”
Writers who turn every car crash into a horrifying accident and every tornado into a killer twister seem more concerned with selling their stories than with telling them. These writers may believe they’re engaging viewers and conveying emotion by using adjectives like devastating, terrifying or alarming. But what they’re really doing is instructing listeners and viewers how to feel about the story, effectively robbing them of the chance to feel anything at all. Telling viewers the next story is “unbelievable” simply invites them not to believe it. Announcing a “surprising” turn all but guarantees that no one will be surprised.
Adjective-stuffed copy is flabby and indigestible, at best. It’s not the way most of us talk, so the result is anything but conversational. Often, it’s just plain silly. How many worthwhile murders have you reported on lately? What’s the point, then, of calling any crime “senseless?” Have you ever heard anything actually whop? Why, then, are we so often told about a “whopping increase” in prices? If the victims were taken to a hospital far away, that might be news and worth mentioning, but why bother telling us they went to a “nearby hospital?”
Sometimes adjectives are simply redundant. Close proximity. Freezing mark. Fatal murder. That kind of writing makes a broadcaster sound ignorant. It undermines credibility and wastes time besides. Does this mean all adjectives must go? Of course not. Just the ones that add no meaning, or worse yet, distort the truth. If you habitually describe all victims as “innocent,” for example, you’ll be wrong when it turns out one particular victim was wanted for armed robbery in four states.
Superlatives are particularly dangerous. If you call a program “unique” you’d better be able to prove it. The same goes for first, last, best and worst. Consider this advice on writing from Turner Catledge when he retired as executive editor of the New York Times: “Play it straight, keep it short, and never use the word ‘unprecedented.’” Or to put it another way, as Charles Kuralt once did: “Just plain old declarative sentences seem to serve best in this field.”
Overcoming adjective addiction isn’t easy. Great writers have struggled to break the habit. The author Willa Cather told an interviewer in 1915, “It was a painful period in which I overcame my florid, exaggerated, foamy-at-the-mouth, adjective-spree period. I knew even then it was a crime to write like I did, but I had to get the adjectives and the youthful fervor worked off.”
Better start now by making time to revise your copy. Before you go on the air, go on an adjective hunt. Set your superlative detector on stun. Give your delete key a workout. The science f Robert J. Sawyeriction writer uses his word-processing software to launch what he calls “a seek-and-destroy run” for unnecessary words like “very.” Create your own list of wasted words. Capture them. Kill them. Show them no mercy.
Brutal? Perhaps. But tragic? Never.
This article was originally published by RTNDA Communicator magazine, June 2001.