Good writing starts with good reporting and often a poor final product is simply a lack of basic reporting skills.
"(You need) to have an idea of how to write, how to write quickly and how to write succinctly on deadline," says the NFL Network's Rich Eisen. "It also promotes attention to detail, and gives you a basic repertoire and background-how to seek out sources, checking sources."
In 1993, the University of Miami (Florida) conducted a survey of daily newspaper sports editors. While the survey did not specifically include sports broadcasters, its findings certainly apply to the overall sports media industry. Respondents strongly encouraged the importance of the "five W's" associated with basic newswriting. "Kids are coming out of school who don't learn the language," said Paul Anger, executive sports editor of the Miami Herald. "I think that journalism schools need to emphasize that (we) need people who are willing to get news no matter what".
A typical college student interested in sports media probably has a tremendous knowledge of sports. He or she probably became a fan at a very young age, and perhaps played sports as well. But too many students make the mistake of thinking that a tremendous knowledge of sports will translate into good sports broadcasting. Without a doubt, sports broadcasters have to know about the sports they cover. But the sports media now encompass a wide variety of topics, including drugs, crime, race, politics, law, and religion. Simply put, sports broadcasters can't write effectively if they don't know anything about these other areas. "Every year, sports reporters become more diversified," says Anger. "They have to be more well-rounded than any other journalist. They must be critics, reporters, and feature writers."
Men such as Cosell, Jack Whitaker, and Jim McKay succeeded as sports journalists because of their interest and background in other areas. Such interests add an important depth and knowledge to your sports writing.
Creativity and Originality
Many of today's problems with writing are due to a lack of effort on the part of the writer. It's much simpler and faster (especially when facing a deadline) to recycle old material than to come up with something new. That's why the audience hears so many sports cliches (See table below).
Creativity does not necessarily mean going over the top. Some simple creative ideas include doing a story in rhyme, using more alliteration, or remembering the "rule of threes." Which of the following sounds more appealing?
"The Cougars showed a lot of poise in their win over Central."
"The calm and collected Cougars showed a lot of poise."
There are literally hundreds of ways to make your writing more exciting and interesting. Just make sure that whatever you do fits in with the general mood and tone of the story. Certain types of writing are inappropriate for certain types of stories, such as taking a light-hearted approach to a very serious story. But in general, don't be afraid to experiment. Creative writing isn't limited to feature stories.
We will make the point throughout this book that all stories are essentially about people. Sports stories are not so much about games, championships, or records as they are about the people involved. Your writing should not only focus on the people involved, but it should connect to the people in the audience. Why should the people sitting at home care about this story? What does it mean to them? Write about the people behind the events, and write for the people watching at home.
One of the most common mistakes young sports broadcasters make is to write too much. They feel like they have to analyze every play, describe every piece of video, and explain every sound bite. Remember, in television and radio the words are only one component of the overall presentation. Think of your story as a recipe, with the words as one of the ingredients, along with sound, pictures, and graphics. Sometimes, you need to use more words and other times, hardly any at all.
In general, pictures and sounds have more impact than words. So when you have very strong video and audio, keep your writing to a minimum and let the other elements tell the story. When your sound and pictures are poor, you'll have to write more to compensate.
Consider a story on a local high school soccer game. If there is an especially dramatic game-winning goal followed by a celebration, you really don't need to write a lot of description; let the video tell the story. But if the game is more mundane and the video unexciting, it may need more help from your writing. If the sound and pictures are especially good, you might consider a natural sound piece and eliminate the narration. It proves very effective to let the subjects tell the story in their own words.
Natural sound is the sound that occurs "naturally" at the scene of any story. For a football game it could be the roaring crowds or marching bands. At a golf match, it's the long periods of silence followed by cheers or groans. Natural sound (or "nat sound") has become much more important over the years in electronic sports reporting. Up until a few years ago, most sports reporters ignored nat sound and instead used canned music or just plain silence. But later generations of reporters and news directors realized that natural sound could make or break a story. The cheers of a crowd, the smash of a hockey player hitting the boards, or the sound of the water splashing when a diver hits a perfect dive all contribute to the scene and the mood of the story. Modern-day reporting involves taking occasional pauses to let the nat sound come up to full volume. Just as good play-by-play men pause after a dramatic moment so listeners can hear the crowd, so too can the sports reporter use nat sound in putting together the daily story.
Occasionally, the broadcast reporter has such dramatic video and natural sound that he or she decides to use them exclusively and without any narration. Such pieces can be more effective than the run-of-the-mill story, but the reporter should take caution in such situations. If you have good video and good nat sound, there's no harm in emphasizing them. But such stories are very difficult and shouldn't be done often without a lot of experience in the basics of reporting and editing. There's nothing better than a dramatic "sound and pictures" piece when it's done right, but there's also nothing worse when it's done wrong. As with any reporting or editing technique, nat sound should usually be used in moderation or it distracts from the message the reporter wants to communicate. Never forget you're trying to communicate a story or idea to the audience, and you shouldn't use any technique that takes away from that.
Things such as music, graphics, and standups can really help your writing, but should be used with caution. Any of these outside elements should only be considered if they add something to the story. For example, many sportscasters have gotten in the habit of putting a music track under highlights or in featue stories. many times, music can add a lot to the story, but more often than not, it becomes a distraction. But by far the biggest offender is the standup.
A standup is a short video segment where the reporter appears on camera at the scene of a story. Too many sports reporters fall into the trap of putting a standup into every story. There can be a variety of reasons for this - it doulc be a matter of station policy, the reporter is too lazy to do the extra writing, or he or she simply wants more television "face time." Standups shuld be used sparingly and only when they add something to the story. There are valid reasons for using a standup in a story, such as when it's important to place the reporter at the scene, there's an extremely tight deadline, or there's a lack of quality video. When a standup is used, it presents extra challenges for the writer, who must have the story planned out in his or her mind at the time the standup is shot. Too many times, the reporter doesn't have a plan in mind, and later tries to fit an inappropriate standup into the story.
Never let a standup, or any other outside element, take the place of good writing. It may require more work, but doing the extra writing usually makes for a better final product.
Brad Schultz is an assistant professor and head of the broadcast sequence in the journalism department at the University of Mississippi. Prior to entering academia, he spent fourteen years in local television and has experience as a sports anchor, producer, reporter, photographer, editor and writer. He covered the NFL, NBA, major league baseball, PGA, NCAA, and Indy 500 among other events. Dr. Schultz is the editor of the Journal of Sports Media and has published several articles and conference papers on local sports broadcasting.