What's up with the funky syntax used by television reporters?
October 12, 2008 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Extra! Extra! The verb "to be" missing from TV newscasts! Anchors and TV reporters omitting "to be," often favor using participles instead. Why?

I find TV news to be unwatchable for a lot of reasons, one of them being the wacky syntax used by reporters. They often put past events into the present tense:
"A fire ravages an apartment complex in Cleveland, one of the victims just twelve years old."

Then there's the whole participle thing:
"Mayor Bloomberg deciding to run for a third term after hinting he might do so for weeks."

"The stock market plunging 37% this week! Many investors deciding to sell their portfolios."

And sometimes they just drop "to be" and don't use a participle:
"The cause of this fire still under investigation."
"Many Americans unsure of the nation's economic stability."

When did this start? Where did it start? Did one influential newscaster promulgate it? Do they do it to add a sense of urgency to whatever they're reporting? I can understand doing it in a newspaper headline where space is limited, but in TV news that wouldn't be an issue.
posted by HotPatatta to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think this news-speak probably started with headlines, where obvious verbs and particles would be left out to leave more space to print the salient bits in really large type.

So when you started having TV presenters read out these headlines, that's the style they ended up using - and by now it's probably just ingrained.
posted by Zarkonnen at 7:42 AM on October 12, 2008

Zarkonnen has it... same deal with military and telegraph speak - it's all to minimize word count.
posted by phrontist at 7:53 AM on October 12, 2008

Response by poster: But I don't think it's to minimize word count. I don't think they're exercising an economy of words just so they can squeeze in one more story about a cat getting rescued from a tree or so they can have time for "witty" banter between the anchors. Cable news has 24 hours to fill and they fill it with desperate bullshit, but cable news anchors are the worst language offenders of all.

Does anyone know if journalism or broadcasting & communications schools actually teach students to speak this way?
posted by HotPatatta at 8:36 AM on October 12, 2008

Newscast syntax: artifact of printed headlines. Newscasters not limited in paper-space like Times editors. Headline syntax around for generations before TV news began broadcasting.
posted by yeti at 8:53 AM on October 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

No. They don't teach this. They try to avoid it in stations where I've worked.

It's a style that is frowned on because it is considered very "small market". Cleveland is a small market.

So when you started having TV presenters read out these headlines, that's the style they ended up using - and by now it's probably just ingrained.

Wrong. It's not the anchor's "style" because the anchor is reading a prompter. No one writes in "headline style" for TV news.
posted by Zambrano at 8:54 AM on October 12, 2008

It's a style that is frowned on because it is considered very "small market".

I hear this all the time, and I live in NYC. Makes me crazy.
posted by kimdog at 9:23 AM on October 12, 2008

Response by poster: It's a style that is frowned on because it is considered very "small market".

I just moved from LA to NYC and it's pervasive in both cities' TV newscasts.

No one writes in "headline style" for TV news.

Ann Curry of The Today Show does it frequently, and I'm sure she's not winging it; everything is scripted for her, I'm sure.

Newscast syntax: artifact of printed headlines.

Did Walter Cronkite speak this way? It seems like it has become more popular in recent years.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:37 AM on October 12, 2008

A characteristically great column by Michael Kinsley on this very topic:

To be or not to be? That remaining the question, the answer increasingly clear. The verb "to be" dying out, and the culprit? None other than TV news channels...

...So, TV news borrows the conventions of newspaper headlines. These conventions developing out of a need for compression, but after a couple of centuries imparting an automatic sense of drama and urgency. I suspecting the trend of TV news talking in headline-ese traceable to Rupert Murdoch, who buys the New York Post many years ago and founding Fox TV News more recently. The Post famous for its brilliant headlines. Fox News, though hypocritical about denying its brazen right-wing politics, the most creative of the TV news networks.

But where it all ending? God knowing tonight. Back to you, Lou.

posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:52 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, gwtter. Here's an article I just found from the NYT that also addresses the question.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:18 AM on October 12, 2008

I think it gives a story some immediacy, deserved or not.

It's not new. I suspect it has a lineage stretching back into radio and before that probably into telegrams and -- literally -- "foreign dispatches". I think this is an angle that Numberg misses. Headlinese and telegramese have some similarities but this is closer to the latter in many ways.


Ann Curry, like most name anchors, probably has a rewrite clause in her contract -- she may not get to decide which stories to cover, but she will be able to change the way they're written to suit her voice. If she wanted to drop this convention she could.

I would discourage thinking of this as "wacky" -- it's no more wacky or wrong than texting or many other ad hoc jargons in our society.

Personally I think a lot of it comes from wanting to avoid saying "today" at the top of every story. Of course it's today!
posted by dhartung at 2:17 PM on October 12, 2008

The mentions above about it being a holdover from print newspaper is only part of the mix.

The real reason is that TV news needs to feel relevant in order for you to watch it. Otherwise, why bother? You can just change the channel.

How are you relevant? One way is be happening now, not in the past.


#1 -- "A fire ravaged an apartment building in Cleveland."

Reaction: So what? Did this happen, like, last week? Didn't I see something about a fire burning down an apartment building before? That's history. Yawn. This is boring. What else is on? Change the channel.

#2 -- "Fire ravages an apartment building in Cleveland."

Reaction: A fire? Right now? Can I see shit burning right now?

Television news needs to appear relevant. It needs to be alive. It needs to be happening now in order to capture your attention.

This is also why we'll go "live" to a reporter in the field, reporting on something that has already happened.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:20 PM on October 12, 2008

When you hear it, it's likely being pushed on the newsies by a consultant. Urgency, etc., as mentioned by CPB.

But as far as making it sound current, it's a lazy way of doing it. A better way is to start by referring to something that actually IS happening now. Let's say fire destroyed an apartment building:

Lazy: "Fire, destroying an apartment building this morning."
(or): "Fire destroys a Maplewood apartment block"

Better: "Tenants are sorting through what's left of their belongings after fire destroyed an apartment building."
posted by evilcolonel at 6:04 PM on October 12, 2008

It's a phenom, alright.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 8:20 PM on October 12, 2008

"A fire is burning out of control--"

"No!" says the copy editor, "Everyone knows you can't use the passive voice in news!"

"Fire burning out of control!"

"Yes! Now you've got it!"
posted by specialfriend at 9:13 PM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry, but I've heard EP's yell at line producers for not copy-editing that style out of the script.
posted by Zambrano at 11:39 AM on October 13, 2008

There is also a trend in certain american dialects to drop the to be. "The roof needs replaced." or "You need educated."

It's disgusting. But true.
posted by gjc at 6:17 PM on October 13, 2008

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