When writing, remember the verbs

Some things rarely change. TV news writing is one of them, unfortunately.  More than a decade ago, I noticed something about both network and local newscasts that drove me nuts and wrote a column about it. This morning, I got a message from Rick Tillery, an anchor in Medford, Oregon. “It appears this needs to make the rounds again,” he wrote. So here goes:

Anyone watching television news these days could be forgiven for thinking they’ve accidentally tuned into a strange new game show called “Hide the Verb.” No matter how hard you try, it seems, you just can’t find one.

Remember verbs? They’re the action words that come between subjects and objects, telling what happened and when. Try locating one in this NBC Nightly News script: “Less resilient, local business. Dwight’s concession stand, in the family three generations. Sales this summer off 75 percent.” Not a verb in sight.

What is going on in TV newsrooms? It seems unlikely we’re victims of some vast anti-verb conspiracy that has recruited news writers from coast to coast. Instead, this new news-speak could actually be the result of a misguided attempt to improve broadcast writing by making it more active and immediate. The goal is laudable. The results are laughable.

Problem number one: Some writers appear to believe that by eliminating all forms of the verb “to be,” they can avoid the passive voice. Wrong. The best way to spot a passive is to look for the subject of the sentence. If it comes after the verb, or if it’s missing altogether, you’ve used a passive. “The body was found at noon” is passive because we don’t know who found it. Taking out “was” solves nothing at all. Former TV news reporter Ike Pigott has his own tongue-in-cheek explanation for why writers might be killing off auxiliary verbs like “is” or “was.” “Maybe they feel more room for important facts when small words removed.”

Problem number two: When verbs do turn up in copy they’re often disguised as gerunds or participles, trailing an “-ing” behind them. On Fox News, for instance, Shepard Smith’s scripts are notorious for overdoing that “-ing” thing. “Cops and demonstrators clashing openly in the streets of the nation’s capital, pepper spray, smoke bombs, night sticks, beating back the crowds.” That’s not active copy. It’s a run-on sentence fragment. And it violates a central principle of good writing. As George Orwell put it, good prose is like a windowpane. It does not draw attention to itself.

Problem number three: Some scripts have verbs, all right, but the verbs don’t get along. “Golfers getting quite a surprise on the green when a single-engine plane makes an emergency landing. It happened at the Hillcrest Country Club in Hollywood. A plane which was towing a banner experiencing problems and forced to land. The pilot putting it down safely near the 11th hole.” Could the writers at Miami’s WSVN-TV have been engaged in a contest that day to see who could cram the most verb tenses into one paragraph?

All this “ing-ing” and verb dropping and tense shifting in news writing is not accidental. It appears to be part and parcel of an ongoing effort to make news sound more current, more happening, more now. But the result is news that sounds more awkward, more phony, more odd. What could be stranger than the false present tense, a verb virus that seems to be spreading from newsroom to newsroom. “Payne Stewart dies in a plane crash,” we’re told, a full day after the accident, when the truth is that Payne Stewart died. Using the present tense in cases like this isn’t just bad grammar, it’s dishonest and misleading, and it ought to go.

Mark Wright (now a morning anchor at KING-TV in Seattle) suspects that what’s driving all this verb abuse is a desire for a “snappy, headliney” sound. But he says the cost of achieving that sound is too high: “The result is the viewer must really work to understand what the story is about.”

Writing that is hard to follow only serves to widen the existing gap between broadcast journalists and their viewers. It reinforces the public’s perception that people in newsrooms are distant and different from everyone else, since they certainly don’t talk like ordinary folks.

Former TV news director Scott Libin has a suggestion for breaking the verb-free habit: Try talking that way to somebody in person and see what kind of funny looks you get. “Come to think of it,” he says, “that’s probably the way a lot of people look at their televisions while the news is on.” Could that possibly explain why so many people aren’t even watching the news any more?

It used to be axiomatic that broadcast newswriting should be conversational. The verb-less verbiage that’s getting on the air these days is unnatural in the extreme. It often sounds more like news delivered by telegram. “Seven shot, one dead, stop. Police investigating, stop.” Stop, indeed. Please.

This article was originally published by RTNDA Communicator magazine, July 2000.