Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve certainly made my share, and some still haunt me to this day. Why oh why did I think David Duchovny’s surname was pronounced do-SHOVE-knee?
Writing news is done under pressure. Believe me, I get it. I spent a decade with the 680 News team where breaking news was our forte. I was there for the Columbine murders, 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq. It was like writing from inside a pressure-cooker, and I loved it.
However, there is no excuse for hitting “publish” on a story that includes lazy writing. Every major news source in London committed the same murder on the English language in the same story last week and it prompted me to write this list of Five Big Mistakes in News Writing.
- The person who committed a crime is not a suspect before they are identified or arrested. Police want to find whoever did *blank*. Someone DID it. Once they’re identified, they’re suspected of the crime because, at this point, it’s a specific person, They benefit from the “innocent until proven guilty” aspect of the law. From the Associated Press Style Book:
The word “suspect” refers to a person who police, prosecutors or other authorities believe or say committed a crime. Do not use it to mean a person of unknown identity who definitely committed a crime.
2. Police talk and write in a certain way that should not find its way into the news. I call it “police-speak”. The main offenders: “executed a search warrant”. This is a butt-covering sentence from police that would only qualify as news if they didn’t do it. “Those involved were known to each other.” People don’t talk that way; don’t parrot this sentence. “Police are warning the public…” Who is “the public”? It’s me and you.
3. News isn’t good or bad, it just is. Yes, you can argue that mass murder is never good news and you’re right. But in most cases, there are two sides to every news story. If the falling dollar is described as bad news, where does that leave those who trade internationally and benefit from the weaker buck? News just is. Let the consumer decide for themselves whether it’s good or bad. Anything else is edging into bias.
4. Allegedly is the most misused word in news. Allegedly refers to the person, not the crime. The crime occurred. After someone has been charged, they allegedly committed the crime. After they are convicted, this no longer applies.
5. Adjectives. Drop them. There’s no need to describe anything as a tragedy. If it’s tragic, it will be obvious. And please don’t describe anything as a parent’s worst nightmare. It’s also overused and applied to situations that don’t qualify. As a journalist friend of mine once darkly remarked, “Maybe MY worst nightmare is my kid being slowly lowered head first into a wood chipper”! Just tell the damn story factually and accurately. The rest is just filler and sounds and reads like inexperience.
Now, will somebody lend a hand and help me down from this high horse?