Memo from John Cameron, Director, ABC news, to all ABC journalists this morning:

Sent: Monday, 13 October 2008 8:33 AM
To:
Subject: Standards — Memo from John Cameron

A persistent number of grammatical, style and other editorial transgressions continue to pollute our journalism on radio, television and online.

This is another entreaty to all — reporters, producers, presenters and EPs — to take proper care with the basics.

We’re rightly proud that the bulk of our output remains healthy (and what an outstanding job we’ve done across all platforms with our coverage of the financial crisis).

But a lack of uniform diligence and/or awareness is still tarnishing the editorial silverware.

It’s broken-record stuff, but I’ll repeat some of the most obvious points:

  • Balance equals credibility. You must ensure all relevant points of view are fairly represented in stories which, in any reasonable sense, may be contentious. Deadlines may mean full balance is not achieved in one story, but it must be sought and fairly presented as soon as possible. A simple example might be an opposition claim being balanced in a following news bulletin by a government or other interested party, if that response was not immediately available. And if there’s no comment, say so. Our own internal reviews and complaints processes show we are not always as vigilant as we should be with this standard journalistic practice.
  • Loaded language. Take great care with phrases such as “refused to comment”, in cases where an individual or group may have said they had no comment, or that they declined to comment. Similarly, consider whether you really want to say someone “claimed” something, when they simply just said it. The wording in both examples can be misleading. There are, of course, cases when “refused” and “claimed” are quite appropriate, but more caution is required.
  • A similar problem arises with careless wording in this example from a recent TV News bulletin: “The treasurer has been criticised for favouring banks over people”. We’re stating as fact that he favours banks, when we actually should say he’s been accused of doing so.
  • Verbs. Don’t shorthand your sentences by dropping verbs. It’s an ugly practice — thankfully now largely culled, but still not extinct.
  • Non-conversational delivery still plagues our airwaves. We talk normally off-air, but then lapse into print-speak when we write for broadcast. It’s a disappointment that no program area or newsroom appears immune from this practice. It can be as simple as placing a “the” in front of a person’s title, when it sounds unnatural not to do so (and it usually does). Or it can be the dreaded comma syndrome, where we try to put two or more thoughts into one sentence — in a way we would never do if conversing normally.

    Here is one very simple example from TV News: “Harry Bath (comma), who played in five winning premiership teams and coached another two (comma), died last night”. It’s an ugly construction, but easily fixed by using two sentences. The rule-of-thumb is simple: If you wouldn’t normally say it that way, then don’t.

  • On a similar theme, the desire to write — and therefore speak — in officialise remains ingrained in some.

    Pretentious jargon has no place in our bulletins and programs.

    There are copious examples (see Style Guide and stacks of previous memos), but one that’s especially popular right now is “determine” — as in “The minister is still to determine…”; “…police have not yet determined the cause…”, etc.

  • Also back in regular use, but unwelcome:

    “Failed to return…” and “failed to find…” (didn’t return, or couldn’t find, please).

    “Sustained lacerations and fractures…” (suffered cuts and broken bones). We even recently had a “multiple bone fractures” (several broken bones).

    “Meantime”, in place of meanwhile at the start of a sentence. And “meanwhile” itself is overused. It’s often unnatural and unnecessary.

    “Lawmakers” (in place of politicians). An Americanism which we won’t be adopting, even though we managed to use it twice in 10 seconds in one recent radio news bulletin.

    And we can’t stop others on our airwaves saying “in going forward”, but we can at least keep those sorts of tedious and passing buzzwords out of our own conversational language.

Fyi, an updated version of the News style guide will be published within weeks.

Peter Fray

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