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Avoiding "Cop Talk"

other topics under BASICS: Broadcast Sentence-Structure, Charges & Allegations, Leads & Teases, Rewriting Copy, Using Numbers

Many of the stories we report involve crimes and police attempts to apprehend those responsible. The importance of these stories to our listeners, as well as the often complex and uncertain nature of police investigations, can be quite intimidating for young reporters, with the result that they frequently repeat verbatim the description of a crime given to them by a police official.

Don't "do the police in different voices"

Police officers are taught to describe their investigations in a way that provides specific details of events with the vaguest possible discussions about those whom police believe responsible. This "cop talk" developed from the legal requirements that enforcement officials need to meet in order to make arrests and gain convictions. But "cop talk" is inadequate for reporting on radio.

Here's an example of "cop talk," a story only slightly modified from what was broadcast on a small-market station:

Cut irrelevant details

This script (which runs about 54 seconds) is far too long, with irrelevant details such as the make and model of the getaway car, while the identification of the suspects isn't revealed until the very end. It is obvious that the reporter merely repeated the words of a police officer or of a police press release. Here's a brief rewrite of the script (which now runs 31 seconds):

Listen to this script!

The new version has the police making the allegations against the two suspects (as is legal and proper), but many details unnecessary to the main point of the story have been removed.

But don't make the opposite mistake of being too informal

"Cop talk" is predominantly a problem in small-market stations in stories by inexperienced reporters, but the opposite extreme seems to be taking hold in larger markets. Big-city reporters are becoming exceedingly colloquial in their language when covering police stories. Here's an example that aired on a major-market station in New England. The story concerned a stolen minivan in which a mother had left two babies inside. In telling the story the reporter said:

This script does not clearly report what police believe to have happened. In fact, the script seems to indicate that this version of events is merely speculation on the part of the reporter. There was no indication of any witness seeing who drove the minivan away. Perhaps the driver was a woman. Moreover, there is no evidence for the alleged motivation of this mystery driver to have abandoned the minivan. Maybe the driver saw the babies, maybe the driver didn't.

Just as troubling as the sloppiness with which this script was put together was the overly conversational tone. A suspect of unknown sex should be called a "suspect." If an unidentified suspect is a man, he should be called a "man" -- not "some guy." Being too chatty damages the credibility of the reporter to be an authoritative source of information.

Radio reporters need to strike a balance in the language they use. Scripts cannot be ploddingly detailed and dull, yet being too colloquial may lead to sloppiness and lack of credibility.

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