The reaction to Charlie Meyerson’s memo, when it was leaked and posted online earlier this week, was predictable, and just about evenly split between newswriters and anchors who thought it was over-the-top and out of bounds, and those surprised that this schlock was still heard on WGN-AM, one of the nation’s best-known radio stations.
Essentially, Meyerson told his staff to stop writing and talking like a newscaster, and to start writing and speaking in conversational English. What a concept.
When I am hired to do writing coaching, one of the many things I say to the faces staring at me is “never lead a story with a noun clause.” About half know what a noun is, and usually nobody knows what a noun clause is. The people who claim to be professional writers these days don’t even know the fundamentals of English. (Here’s a noun clause: “The city council met last night and…”)
Meyerson has been trying to get news people to write and speak conversational English for decades, and his Monday memo to the staff listed 119 words and phrases which he was banning from the airwaves. It’s the sort of stuff you hear all the time on what passes for newscasts these days.
Words like “flee” and “alleged” and “literally” and “reportedly” and phrases like “area residents” and “close proximity” and “went terribly wrong.” And cop-talk like “fled on foot” and “the incident remains under investigation.” And political-speak like “two to one margin” (two to one is a ratio, not a margin) and “podium” when you mean “lectern” (a podium is something you stand on; a lectern is something you stand behind when speaking).
The Tribune Company’s CEO, Randy Michaels, has for years coached his news people to speak and write conversationally. One of his favorite bits is to affect a “broadcast” voice and say “authorities seek a male suspect alleged to have made off with $50,000 in cash.” Then he’d use his normal speaking voice and say “Police are looking for a man they say stole $50,000.”
I still have a cassette tape I made years ago, when I was consulting in the Springfield, IL market, of a newscast on WTAX-AM (the competition) where the anchor says “fled on foot in an unknown direction with an undisclosed amount of currency.” You still hear that sort of crap today on local radio and TV stations.
Writing news is a skill that takes some training and practice, but it’s not brain science or rocket surgery. As I’ve said so many times, those who are the least accomplished at it usually have no clue how bad they are.