An incensed viewer wrote to our local paper recently referring to 'uneducated television reporters'. He was complaining about the standard of English these days. The BBC hears similar complaints about its reporters, regularly. Their lapses highlight the a key difference between spoken and written English.

Television reporters are certainly not uneducated.

It's many years since I was one, but even then, double degrees and post-graduate diplomas were common. One of my colleagues had degrees in maths, physics and journalism, others in geography, law and English. Another had a masters degree with first-class honours in psychology and now has a senior post at our university. These days, television journalists tend to be the top graduates with journalism and communication degrees. It's always been a competitive business.

So why don't they speak proper?

Usually, they do, but let's cut them some slack. They are using conversational English, frequently live, into a camera to an audience of up to 800,000. Most people would be so terrified we'd be lucky to hear any sound at all. Sometimes the journalists' ad-libbing isn't perfect. It's the same for us.

In conversation, we make mistakes of grammar and syntax. Our sentences are frequently passive and clumsy. Our audience gets the first draft. Conversation makes a useful model for business writing, but we usually need to add some polish.

Call me a bit defensive, but there's something else about television reporting...

The job involves absorbing new information very quickly on topics that may be well outside the reporters' expertise. Often that information is complex and technical. They have to pick out the main points and explain it to an audience that may have no background knowledge. They must do it an engaging way, in plain English.

That's a remarkable skill. Let's admire it.


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