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Rewriting Copy

other topics under BASICS: Avoiding "Cop Talk", Broadcast Sentence-Structure, Charges & Allegations, Leads & Teases, Using Numbers

Radio reporters spend as much time rewriting scripts as writing them. Stories are rewritten from three types of sources: newspapers, press releases and other radio news scripts. The first two of these sources are not written in broadcast style, and radio reporters need to be aware of the differences between print and broadcast.

Differences in style

One obvious difference involves numbers. In print style, numbers can be written out to exactitude, while on the radio numbers are reduced to two significant digits. Ages in the newspaper are written between commas after an individual's name; in broadcast style, ages are given as adjectival phrases preceding the name.

Newspaper stories also display a greater use of the past tense. Print is a distancing medium, separating events through the filter of the written word from the immediacy of their occurrence. Newspapers are also written hours before they are read, so the events described seem "old news." Radio, on the other hand, has an intimate, "you-are-there" quality that is enhanced by the use of the present tense. Newsmakers spoke to newspaper reporters ("Bush said...."); they speak to a radio audience ("BUSH SAYS....").

The art of condensing

The greatest difference involves story length and detail. Print reporters write hundreds, even thousands of words for a particular story. Few, if any, of your stories as a radio reporter should have even a hundred words. Rewriting newspaper stories becomes an art of condensing. Take the following example of a newspaper story from the imaginary Middleville Times:

The example above is quite short by print standards, but it's far too long for radio. Remember, a radio story without an actuality (a "reader") should generally run about 20 seconds. Get to the heart of your story and leave the additional details out, as in the following 21-second rewrite:

Listen to this script!

Unless you have spoken to individuals involved in the story yourself, you must attribute your rewritten story to its newspaper source. The attribution generally begins the second sentence of the script ("THE MIDDLEVILLE TIMES REPORTS...."). Not only is it ethical to credit the news organization that discovered the story, but if the newspaper gets it wrong (a not infrequent occurrence), the error and any of its consequences will generally not fall on you or your station.

Please release me

Most of the press releases a newsroom receives concern community groups trying to gain publicity for themselves or their events. Usually these press releases are of minor news value. In smaller communities, however, listeners expect to be informed of such events, and program directors may well inform the newsroom that a story must be aired. Generally, though, if a news or program director believes a press release is worth a story, a reporter will make a phone call or visit an event, with the result that the reporting is original rather than a rewrite.

Businesses and organizations often use press releases...through mail though increasingly through the fax machine or PR tout promotions, reorganizations, mergers, hirings, layoffs and other activities. These press releases are the first, and sometimes the only official contact the business or organization will make with the media. Press releases are an essential aspect of business reporting. Let's say your fax machine spits out the following press release from an out-of-town bank announcing a deal for it to buy a local bank:

This press release is full of legalese and large numbers. Bring the story close to home for your listeners by referring to something that will directly affect their lives, as in the lead to this 16-second reader:

Listen to this script!

Remember that press releases are primary sources of information, like the tape from an interview. The information in a press release contains the bias of the organization that sent it out. Be aware of that bias and show the same prudence in dealing with press releases as you show with other forms of newsgathering.

Keep stories current

In the course of the day, stories you or other reporters have written need to be rewritten. Rewriting is essential not just because each time you tell a story it should sound different and fresh, but also because situations change. Keep the focus on what is current. An early-morning house fire will bring stories about the blaze, the firefighters and any injuries or fatalities. By midday, the lead concerns the amount of damage to the building. In the evening, the focus shifts to the family that might be homeless that night. The shifts in focus require rewriting the story several times in the course of the day.

Rewriting is an important aspect of radio journalism. Knowing how to adapt stories to your medium and to current situations will aid you in informing the public and gaining respect as a timely provider of news.

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