Audio journalism 1: Writing for sound


Reading: Writing for the Mass Media, chapters 8

Writing to be heard 1: Audio journalism

Most of what you hear on radio and television is written.

TV and radio are word media, even though video and sounds often drive a story. The words and meanings must be clear.

The web has added a dimension to audio (and video) that we have never had before. We can now use sounds in a different way, and we are not confined to the formats or practices that were developed for radio.

For example, a story might have this quote:

“I saw the crash from a distance — maybe 50 or 60 yards — but it was terrible,” she said.

But you could include an audio clip with your story, and it is this:

Does that sound clip convey a different meaning than the one you got when you read it?


Or, take this example:

For an amateur, Smith has the guitar techniques of a professional with many years of experience. Here’s a sample of his work (:40):

Journalists need to learn how to take advantage of these new ways of communicating.

Every journalists must be well schools in recording and editing audio.

Writing for audio

When you are writing for audio, with it is a news story or an introduction to someone else, the writing

— must be clear

— must be for the ear (to be heard, not read)

  • short words
  • short sentences, one idea or fact per sentence
  • simple sentence structure
  • pronounceable words
  • use of contractions
  • casual but not informal
  • efficient – make every word count active voice

— must be written to time – how long does it take to say it

— must be written to be spoken


Learning to speak/record audio journalism (yourself)

Part of audio journalism means you have to learn to do it – that is, to speak it.

— using proper English

— speaking in complete sentences, complete thoughts•

— clarity (enunciation)

— logical (coherence)

— pace – speaking slowly enough to be understood, fast enough to be interesting

— practice, practice, practice (seriously)

— speaking with confidence, eliminating uhs, y’knows and that other word

Clarity, clarity, clarity

Above all else, you must learn to speak in a way that people hear what you’re saying and understand it. Learn not to speak so slowly that you are boring or so quickly that listeners don’t hear the words and syllables.


And after you get some practice and confidence, learn to insert some personality into your recordings by varying the tone and inflexions.


The news story

Remember, the key to all good writing for the mass media is to understand what you are writing about. Broadcast writing is no different. The writer has to understand thoroughly the information that must be presented. Then the writer has to begin asking some questions:

* What is the dominant theme?

* What facts illuminate or help develop this theme?

* What is the principal impression I want to leave with the viewer?

* What is the most significant or interesting part of this story?

* What is necessary for understanding this story?

* What can I leave out?


Dramatic unity

The major structure of writing that we will learn for audio and video journalism is called dramatic unity. That is a structure that allows us to tell a story quickly and without a lot of detail.

The dramatic unity structure has three parts: climax, cause and effect. The structure is usually represented by a circle, symbolizing the fact that all of these parts are necessary for a good story. (Remember when we talked about the inverted pyramid structure? We said that some of the least important information might be eliminated. That’s not the case with dramatic unity. You don’t eliminate any part of it.)

  • Climax – the end of the story; the most important thing that happened; the most dramatic thing that happened. That comes first.
  • Cause – why did it happen? what are the circumstances under which it occurred? what are the facts that can illuminate the climax and help the reader understand what happened and why?
  • Effect – explain the outcome, the effect or the future of the event; try to bring this story to a satisfying conclusion.

Take a look at the example on the right. You should note several major differences in writing style from what we have previously practiced in this course. What are some of those? What else do you see in this story that we have not discussed yet?


Writing the audio news story

Climax — what is most important or dramatic of the story? Remember when we talked about news writing, we discussed things that should almost always be in a lead paragraph or near the top of a story: people killed or injured, property damage, large numbers of people affected by an event, etc. The same thing — and many of the same rules — apply to broadcast writing.

The city has delayed a seven hundred thousand dollar drainage project in the Coventry and Lakeshore Drive areas. City officials say they need approval for the project from the Army Corps of Engineers.


Cause — what are the facts that will expand or develop the climax of the story? In this sense, “cause” doesn’t necessarily what caused the event. Rather, it means what can you say that will help the listener to understand the event better. For instance, in the example below — the next part of the story begun above — what is said is not the “cause,” but it does help the listener to understand this story better.

The city has planned this project for months without knowing it needed Corps approval. But today the city engineer announced that federal regulations require plans be submitted to the Corps.

Effect — what information can bring this story to a conclusion? Again, we are not necessarily talking about an “effect” in the sense of cause-and-effect. We are simply looking for a way to bring the story to a conclusion.

That action could delay the project for six months. Residents say they are surprised and disappointed that the work won’t begin soon.

This was a difficult story to write. It was a story that had a lot of complexity and detail that could not be included. For instance, the residents had been waiting for several years to have this work down. While that was implied in the story, it could not be explicitedly stated. Another thing that the story leaves out is why the city is suddently finding out that the Corps of Engineers has to approve a project.

This story could be improved in several ways. Look at the last sentence. It contains five (count ‘em, five) sibilants — residents, say, surprised, disappointed, soon. Some of these words may be necessary, or they may not have good substitutes. Still, this story could use some judicious editing and even rewriting.

Here are a couple of other stories. See if they are any better.


Chicago police are looking into the death early Tuesday morning of 72-year-old Mary Ryan at the California Gardens Nursing Center in Little Village.


Ryan reportedly received a morphine injection from her 38-year-old daughter just hours before her death. Ryan was suffering from numerous terminal illnesses.


The case is just a death investigation at this time.



An Illinois state trooper was killed in a fiery car crash in Downers Grove overnight.


The trooper was 29-year-old Chung Lin. The driver of the pickup truck that rear-ended the trooper, Azaria (a-ZAR-ee-A) Maja (Ma-JA), has been charged with reckless driving.


He is in the hospital in fair condition with lacerations to his face. Three other people suffered minor injuries.


Using the present context

Some students don’t completely understand when they should use the present tense in writing broadcast news. (Some don’t understand what the present tense is — sometimes. Make sure you know.)

The present tense is a good way to introduce a sense of immediacy into your copy. Even though you are writing about things that have already happened, expressing them in the present tense rather than the past tense helps the writer lay stress on the most immediate information.

Here are a few guidelines about using the present tense in broadcast copy:

* when the action is continuing

Hurricane Sally is battering the New England coast today.

The governor plans a special session of the legislature next month

* when the action is in the immediate past and has some continuing effect

The president says he will veto the budget bill.

* when referring to something in the future

The Kroger company has announced that it is closing its stores in the city.

* but not when it is clearly inappropriate.

Two people are killed in a three-car accident last night on I-59.

Possible news quiz questions for this week.


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