Forbidden WGN words, phrases: Something “went terribly wrong”

16 Mar

In his monologue in 1972, comedian George Carlin first listed “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” They were English-language words that, at that time, were considered inappropriate for public broadcast on radio and TV in the United States.

Carlin’s comedy routine came to mind recently when Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels issued a list of 119 forbidden words and phrases that news anchors and reporters at the company’s news-talk station, WGN (720 a.m.), Chicago, must not say on the air. Michaels’ list was passed along to news people by news director Charlie Meyerson.

The list in the internal memorandum, leaked to WBEZ media columnist Robert Feder, includes words Michaels dislikes plus some redundancies and jargon.

According to Feder, the Meyerson/Michaels memo says, “The real goal here is to avoid using words that make you sound like you’re reading, instead of talking — that shatter the image you’re speaking knowledgeably to one person. By not using ‘newsspeak,’ you enhance your reputation as a communicator.”

The memo also suggests that WGN employees report any on-air infractions by their co-workers, complete with date and time, to management.

Delivering the news in a conversational way as opposed to sounding like a college professor lecturing a class is a good thing, but the 119 banned words and phrases seem a bit much.

Forbidden words are really nothing new in news broadcasting and even public relations. When I was a subcontractor for NASCAR’s PR department, handling media relations and publicity for its Midwest-based All-Star Series, a Late Model stock car touring series, there were two or three words I was told not to use in news releases because they had a negative connotation or gave a wrong impression.

One of them was “earned” with regard to prize money awarded to competitors in races. NASCAR didn’t want drivers to get the mistaken notion that they had “earned” a check just because they had competed in a race. The sanctioning body wanted drivers to realize they were contestants, and prize money was “awarded” based on their performance in a race. I think that makes sense.

Unfortunately for NASCAR, though, there was no written list of banned words provided to me when I took the publicity post. So I learned not to use the various inappropriate words in news releases the hard way — after I already had used them.

In radio news broadcasting, I learned there were some words the news director wanted me to avoid and some others I should make sure I used.

For example, I was told to avoid overusing the over-used word “officials” in news stories.

Why report that “fire officials are looking for the cause of the fire” when you can say “fire investigators are looking for the cause of the fire”?

“Alleged” or at least something similar, however, is a word that should be used when someone is charged with a crime but has not been convicted.

It’s inappropriate to report “John Hancock robbed the bank.” But it’s quite appropriate to say “John Hancock is alleged to have robbed the bank.” Or, to change things up, a newscaster can report “John Hancock is accused of robbing the bank.”

That brings us back to Mr. Michaels’ list. There may, indeed, be good reason for avoiding some of the 119 words or phrases on it.

But the list is so lengthy it’s unreasonable to think that any news reporter or anchor could make it through a day, working on deadline, without being in violation at least once or twice.

Here, finally, is that much-discussed list of taboo words and phrases at WGN, as penned by the CEO:

* “Flee” meaning “run away”
* “Good” or “bad” news
* “Laud” meaning “praise”
* “Seek” meaning “look for”
* “Some” meaning “about”
* “Two to one margin” . . . “Two to one” is a ratio, not a margin. A margin is measured in points. It’s not a ratio.
* “Yesterday” in a lead sentence
* “Youth” meaning “child”
* 5 a.m. in the morning
* After the break
* After these commercial messages
* Aftermath
* All of you
* Allegations
* Alleged
* Area residents
* As expected
* At risk
* At this point in time
* Authorities
* Auto accident
* Bare naked
* Behind bars
* Behind closed doors
* Behind the podium (you mean lecturn) [sic]
* Best kept secret
* Campaign trail
* Clash with police
* Close proximity
* Complete surprise
* Completely destroyed, completely abolished, completely finished or any other completely redundant use
* Death toll
* Definitely possible
* Diva
* Down in (location)
* Down there
* Dubbaya when you mean double you
* Everybody (when referring to the audience)
* Eye Rack or Eye Ran
* False pretenses
* Famed
* Fatal death
* Fled on foot
* Folks
* Giving 110%
* Going forward
* Gunman, especially lone gunman
* Guys
* Hunnert when you mean hundred
* Icon
* In a surprise move
* In harm’s way
* In other news
* In the wake of (unless it’s a boating story)
* Incarcerated
* Informed sources say . . .
* Killing spree
* Legendary
* Lend a helping hand
* Literally
* Lucky to be alive
* Manhunt
* Marred
* Medical hospital
* Mother of all (anything)
* Motorist
* Mute point. (It’s moot point, but don’t say that either)
* Near miss
* No brainer
* Officials
* Our top story tonight
* Out in (location)
* Out there
* Over in
* Pedestrian
* Perfect storm
* Perished
* Perpetrator
* Plagued
* Really
* Reeling
* Reportedly
* Seek
* Senseless murder
* Shots rang out
* Shower activity
* Sketchy details
* Some (meaning about)
* Some of you
* Sources say . . .
* Speaking out
* Stay tuned
* The fact of the matter
* Those of you
* Thus
* Time for a break
* To be fair
* Torrential rain
* Touch base
* Under fire
* Under siege
* Underwent surgery
* Undisclosed
* Undocumented alien
* Unrest
* Untimely death
* Up in (location)
* Up there
* Utilize (you mean use)
* Vehicle
* We’ll be right back
* Welcome back
* Welcome back everybody
* We’ll be back
* Went terribly wrong
* We’re back
* White stuff
* World class
* You folks

Excuse me Mr. Michaels, but if you think this is a manageable list, something went terribly wrong with your thinking.

Copyright 2010 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece is being submitted to The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa, as an “Everyday People” column.


Posted by on March 16, 2010 in Uncategorized


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3 responses to “Forbidden WGN words, phrases: Something “went terribly wrong”

  1. Coop

    March 17, 2010 at 1:40 am

    I still remember WOC-TV newsman John Bauman discussing odd phrasing and misplaced modifiers. Two of the examples he used were “She was shot in the fracas” (that had to have hurt) and “The bullet was in her yet” (I must have missed biology class for that one).

    Evidently Randy Michaels doesn’t have anything better to do than worry about some overused wording in news stories. While there may be some validity, one would think Michaels would worry more about WGN’s (a once great station) sliding listenership and some of the horrible moves that have been made in programming!!!

  2. frontporchexpressions

    March 17, 2010 at 2:39 am

    One might also think, Coop, that the company’s $13 billion debt load would occupy most of Mr. Michaels’ time.

  3. Dan

    March 21, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    I agree, the list is too much! Some of the things I don’t like to hear. I am sick to death of “world class” being applied to every stupid little thing in Utah. I also don’t like “cops” or “busted” in the news. I see nothing wrong with “police” or “fire officials”. Everybody knows you just mean the bosses. And, what’s the difference between a podium and a lectern? Somebody must think there is one. Is dais OK?


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