December 22, 2021

This is one of 10 essays I offer as we close 2021 that I hope will help broadcast journalists tell stronger stories in the year ahead.  

Mark Twain offered some writing advice about adjectives: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

We each see the world through our own lens. Many factors color that lens, such as where we grew up; how much education we have; our race, gender, and ethnicity; and, for those of us with brothers and sisters, where we fall in our sibling order. We all have our own biases and experiences.

All of those points of view show themselves in our writing, especially when we use subjective adjectives. A subjective adjective is a descriptor that reflects your opinion as opposed to an objective, factual adjective.

If you said, “He is wearing a fashionable shirt,” that would be your opinion. If you said, “He is wearing a cotton shirt,” that would be a fact.

Go on a search-and-destroy mission to edit subjective adjectives out of your news copy.

I differentiate between “subjective” and “objective” adjectives because there is nothing wrong with using adjectives that are factual and add valuable information.

An example of a journalist using subjective adjectives might sound like this: “It was an awful scene. The terrifying woman slammed her husband with a huge frying pan.”

It is the writer’s opinion that the scene was “awful,” that the woman was “terrifying” and that the pan was “huge.”

If I used objective adjectives, I might write: “The three elementary school-age children watched as their mother whacked their drunken dad’s head with a seven-pound cast iron frying pan.”

The facts prove that the children were of elementary school age, that the man was drunk and that the pan weighed seven pounds and was made of cast iron. We might pluck those facts from a police report. They add rich detail to the story. Good writers use specific details in their stories not just to convey information but also to convey emotion (and viewers will remember what they feel longer than what they know).

When writers lean on worn-out adjective clichés to describe a scene, viewers get the sense this is not a unique or singularly important story. It is a generic tale.

Other adjective clichés include “fantastic” and “unbelievable.” These words show up most often in the second or third day of coverage following an event. It is as though journalists feel a need to pump oxygen into a dying story, so we use these inflated words. Viewers know these words are hyperbole. Worse, the words reveal the journalists’ biases.

I especially dislike it when reporters call snowy days “bad” weather. Some people love that kind of weather. Not me, but some people do.

Think carefully before you use words like “only” or “just.”  When you say, “The teacher only earned $56,000 a year,” your word “only” might imply you believe the teacher was underpaid. If you reported that a California home sold for “just $750,000” it may not sound like an outlandish amount to people in San Francisco, but where I am from in Kentucky that would be an unheard-of price to pay for anything shy of a mansion.

Media lawyers cringe when they hear journalists using subjective adjectives. When a public figure sues a TV station for libel, that public figure has to prove two main things: that the journalist acted with reckless disregard for the truth and that the journalist acted with malice. Subjective adjectives can be just what the plaintiff uses to prove the journalist had malice.

Imagine sitting on the witness stand trying to answer why you wrote, “The city councilman flashed an evil look as he voted in favor of the contract.”

It may be true and objective that he smiled; it may be true that he waved at his contractor friend who kicked $2 million into the councilman’s reelection fund. But it would be purely a reporter’s opinion that the smile was “evil.” And if you say he had an evil look on his face, it could be evidence that you didn’t like the guy — in fact, you held malice toward him.

Watch your lawyer cringe as you say such things as, “The deal was one big rip-off,” “The car dealer was a scam artist,” “The sleazy doctor was back in court.”

Let me add a caveat. This advice pertains to the words you say in your copy. When you avoid using subjective adjectives, it opens the gate for the subjects of your stories to show themselves in all of their subjective glory. Characters are best when they are saying things that are subjective. I will do a whole column on that tomorrow, but for now, limit subjective adjectives in your copy. They reflect your opinions and biases.

(Some ideas in this series are included in my college textbook, “Aim for the Heart”.)

Al Tompkins will expand on his storytelling and writing teaching in two Poynter seminars: The Poynter Producer Project and TV Power Reporting. Click the links to see the schedules, meet our all-star visiting faculty and apply. Thanks to a grant from CNN, we offer 50% tuition scholarships to NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA, NAJA and NLGJA members. Both seminars take place over three days at Poynter in St. Petersburg, Florida, or you can attend virtually.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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