Newscasts Without Panic

Jun 27, 2015

You're in the newsroom, prepping stories for your newscasts, and before you know it, it's two minutes to air. Then *BAM*, breaking news comes across the wire, email and on Twitter. There’s a fire near City Hall. Time to panic?

“Be prepared for the element of surprise,” said Korva Coleman, NPR anchor, and leader of the session “Newscasts without Panic” at PRNDI’s 2015 conference. “Sometimes I have to write 15 seconds before air. And that’s when you have to know yourself really well.”

Luckily for us, Coleman knows herself — and her craft — exceedingly well. She encourages anchors to practice writing over and over again, including when they aren’t on deadline. Keep stories short, and make sure not to bury the lead beneath unnecessary facts. Her biggest tip: “Don’t sweat your mistakes,” she said. “We all make them!”

Coleman shared a particularly scathing voicemail she got from a listener, scolding her with the words: “You screwed up again.” That's because she said the Dow Jones was 69 points up rather than 62 points down.

“I saved that, that’s on my desktop,” Coleman said. “I keep it there for humility.”

NPR's Korva Coleman
Credit Jeff Coltin/PRNDI

Writing practice took up much of the workshop. The participants were asked to read a story about an attack on the Afghan parliament and choose which parts of the story would be necessary, which would be nice to include, and which parts should be left out. Coleman then asked the room to write 20 to 30 seconds of copy about the attack. But even the quiet minutes of writing time was a learning opportunity, as Coleman stressed the importance of reading aloud as you write, and complimented a participant who was doing it. “This is something that you’re writing for the ear after all. Not the eye,” she said.

Writing for the ear is also why Coleman suggested using as few numbers as possible in newscasts. “If you can, say to people something went up ‘half a percent,’ not ‘point-five,’” she said. “If you can find a different way to write numbers, your listeners will be that much more informed.”

Put simply by another participant: “Numbers are evil!”

In the end, much of news casting is emulating other great anchors. Coleman pointed out her NPR colleague Dave Mattingly for his simple, short writing.

She read his cast as an example. “I want to point out the great verbs in there,” she said. “’Relinquish?' Wow. Got to give him props for that.”