How To Sound Like A Professional Journalist

Judy Woodruf interviews Chuck Hagel on PBS News Hour

Writing and speaking like a professional have always been important concerns for journalists. But today, with advertorials cluttering up TV station websites and social media alike, it’s even more pressing to set yourself apart from the fake news that constantly bombards your audience.

The Confusion of Advertorials or Native Content

An advertorial—sometimes called native content—is an ad in the form of editorial content. In other words, it’s an ad made to look like a real news story. You’ve probably seen many of these. Don’t think so? Browse a local TV station’s website. Look along the sides and scroll down to the bottom of the page. See any ads for anti-aging creams that “plastic surgeons don’t want you to know about,” or investing advice that “makes bankers crazy?”

The reason websites (including media organizations) can make money off these advertorials is that they don’t really look like content native to the website; most people can easily tell an advertorial is not a legitimate news story. For one thing, the picture quality is usually horrible, and real news stories don’t contain badly edited animations—dancing pumpkins, flickering lights, mouths opening and closing to name just a few.

The other giveaway is the language, and that brings us back to the importance of sounding professional as a journalist. Every time I see one of the following sensationalist words of phrases, I know I’m looking at an advertorial: “Shocking,” “jaw-dropping,” “you won’t believe,” “this is amazing.”

Choosing Your Language Carefully

Obviously, you don’t want to use any of the above words or phrases when writing headlines for your station’s website or social media posts. But it’s also important to keep them out of your vocabulary when you write scripts or ad-lib in a live shot. Your job as a reporter is to sound like you know what you’re talking about. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert on everything, but you should be knowledgeable about general topics. You should also be able to ask questions, learn about a subject, and be able to describe it accurately in layman’s terms to your audience. Otherwise, your viewers will have no confidence in your ability to report the news.

If you start describing stories as “shocking” or “jaw-dropping,” you’re going to sound naive and inexperienced. Or audience members might think you’re trying to make a story sound more sensational or newsworthy than it actually is. (If you’re working in a small market without a lot of hard news, that may in fact be the case—but you don’t want it to be obvious to your viewers!) Additionally, whether or not something is “shocking” depends on the individual, and many of your viewers won’t be surprised at all.

If you need to point out why something is unusual, explain with specifics. For example, don’t say, “This pumpkin is so huge, it’s jaw-dropping!” Instead, say, “This pumpkin that Mr. Smith grew in his backyard weighs thirty pounds. By contrast, the average size for pumpkins of this variety is between six and eighteen pounds.” Let your audience members decide if the pumpkin’s size is jaw-dropping or just mildly surprising.

This doesn’t mean that you have to sound jaded or act like nothing surprises you. It’s okay to express genuine surprise, but do it in a way that doesn’t sound over-the-top. Again, giving specifics instead of interpreting a situation as “shocking” works better.

For example: “I knew our meteorologist predicted six inches of snow tonight, but I was surprised by how quickly it accumulated. Look at how much snow is piled up on the hood of our news van. You can see on the ruler that it’s almost four inches of snow. Just thirty minutes ago, when we parked here, there was no snow on the hood at all.” This sounds better than, “It’s just shocking how much snow we’re getting!” or “My jaw dropped when I saw the parking lot!”

But Don’t Sound Like a Professor, Either

Sounding well-informed does not mean sounding like you have an advanced degree in every subject you cover. As you may have learned in some of your classes, using unfamiliar, big words without explanation is also a good way to alienate some audience members. Some stations have their own standards and may recommend writing for a sixth- or eighth-grade vocabulary, but in general you don’t want to use words that go much beyond the junior-high level.

Words the average person uses in conversation (aside from profanity, of course) are usually good choices, but sometimes it’s necessary to use jargon when covering a scientific or medical story. In that case, just make sure to explain the word’s meaning. You don’t have to go into a lot of technical details—just sum up what the word means and how it relates to the story. For example, “Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle that can be fatal, and often results in patients like Jane Doe needing a heart transplant. Jane told us she’s been on the waiting list for a transplant since April….”

Relating to Interview Subjects

You may have learned in one of your classes that talking to people in their own language—parroting the words or phrases they use—is a good way to establish rapport and get them talking. Sometimes this works, but it’s also possible your subject may think you’re trying too hard or being disingenuous. You might even come off that way to viewers, too. An adult trying to use the latest slang popular with twelve-year-olds is probably going to look silly, and the preteen subject might respond by rolling his or her eyes. A better alternative is to restate what the subject said when leading into questions. For example, “You said, in your own words, that you were ‘down with that sick beat.’ How long have you been practicing this type of music?” By maintaining that distance, you retain both that professional tone without sounding insincere, which, ultimately, is the goal here.

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