Writing News for the Distracted Viewer

By Doug Drew 

Research shows most viewers are doing other things when watching the news. Recent Nielsen studies show that about a third of all U.S. household Internet activity takes place while the user watches television. In many cases, the television is simply background noise. The TV is on, but viewers are distracted. In the morning in particular, very few viewers are sitting in front of the television watching news. Viewers are busy getting ready for the day, getting dressed, getting the kids ready for school, making lunch, etc.

Simply put, viewers are just not paying close attention, which means that we have to work extremely hard to make sure the writing and producing is easy for the viewer to understand.

Clear and Concise
The best writing is clear, concise and to-the-point. It’s your job to communicate an idea as clearly as possible. If you make your viewers stop and think what it is you are trying to say, you have failed. Don’t make viewers work at trying to figure out what the story is about. If viewers have to stop and ponder what it is that was just said they are going to miss the next few lines of copy.

It’s about the viewer
Writers who use a play-on-words are often thrilled at how clever they are. But it’s not about you, it is about the viewer. Everything you do should be focused on telling a story as clearly as possible.

Edward R. Murrow: Straightforward
A lot of people in the television news business think of themselves as clever writers. If you go back and look at some of the greatest broadcast journalists of all time, you will find the reason they were successful is because they wrote in a very simple, easy to understand style. Edward R. Murrow wrote in a very direct style. His scripts were simple. His sentences were short and to-the-point. You hung on his every word, because you understood exactly what he was saying. He never confused the viewer.

Cute and clever writing rarely works in teases, in packages, or on anchor intros. It doesn’t work on fonts or graphics. Keep the writing and the graphic simple.
Clever writing can often do more harm than good as well. Just because it might make sense in your head as you write it, doesn’t mean it will make sense when it is read by someone else (the anchor) and then interpreted by a third party (the viewer.)

Kickers and feature stories
There are times when clever writing can be acceptable, usually in kickers and feature stories. But those should be the exceptions. Once in a while it’s okay, but keep in mind that you are taking a risk.

The best writing is clear and concise. The next time you start to have fun with a script, stop and ask yourself if that’s what’s best for the viewer. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s all about the viewer.

Doug Drew is a morning news specialist with 602 Communications. You can reach him at ddrew@602communications.com.