What is involved in writing news for television?

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Answered by: Dan, An Expert in the Writing News Reports Category
Writing news is very different from putting together a report for your boss or writing a short story. This requires paying attention to both what you include in your story but also how you structure it. In terms of content, you are probably familiar with “the five Ws and one H”, that is, the questions “What?”, “Who?”, “Where?”, “When?”, “Why?” and “How?” If these questions are not answered, your news report is severely incomplete. However, the structure of your writing is equally important.

It is not unusual to see novices write a news piece in chronological order, eg. "First this happened and then that happened". Instead, journalists use the inverted pyramid method. This means starting your story with the most important facts and adding facts of lesser importance as you go. The inverted pyramid method applies to all kinds of news outlets, whether it is for television or for a newspaper. However, writing news for television requires that you get to the point much faster, as the audience can’t skim through the rest of the content the way they could an article. Using the principle of the inverted pyramid will help keep the audience engaged throughout the report and quickly provides a reason as to why they should pay attention.

But how would one determine what truly is the most important fact? First, you need to know your story well. Then, imagine that you had to tell the whole story in one, brief sentence. What would that sentence include? For example, if you are writing for an evening television news broadcast, your first sentence could be, "This afternoon, 15 people were killed when a car bomb exploded outside a grocery store in Smallville." That one sentence would answer the questions, “What?”, “When?”, “Who?”, “Where?”, and “How?” If this sentence is the only piece of information your audience gets, they still know a great deal about what happened.

However, what if your first sentence were, "It was a beautiful summer day in Smallville"? It does answer the question "Where?" and provides a vague answer to the question "When?" But it does not provide anything of substance. The audience would have no idea what actually took place and have no reason to continue watching.

But who should state these important details? If you include the first sentences described above in your script for the video segment, your producer will not be happy. Why? Because your story does not start in the video segment but when it is introduced by the anchor. The first paragraph of your script generally equals the opening comments, the lead, by the anchor. The second paragraph usually equals the opening of the video segment. This way, the anchor leads the viewer into the segment, and his comments and the segment flow seamlessly into each other.

Once you have the basics of the story down, a true journalist keeps adding vital information to their report, sentence by sentence, always imagining that the sentence they are currently writing is the last one. If they notice that they have included a statement earlier in their script that is of lesser importance, they will take that sentence and put it at the end.

But in addition to keeping the audience engaged, writing news for television comes with an additional impetus for following the principle of the inverted pyramid. As most news broadcasts are live, things tend to happen that might require the producer and director to cut a segment short so as not to go overtime. If the segment was properly written, it can be cut short live without the audience noticing anything was missing. However, if many sentences are included that simply serve as bridges between thoughts, it will be much more difficult for the folks in the control room to find an alternate ending point on the fly.

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