News Reports - Walls of Building Blocks

by Nigel J. Ross

Nowadays it is customary to use radio and TV news items in the language classroom. Most coursebooks seem to have at least one 'News Programme', and we now have access to satellite television news as well as radio bulletins. Broadcast news items are very useful as a way of introducing and/or consolidating many language points - the past tense seems to be a classic example (judging by coursebooks), specific vocabulary another. Students can be asked to 'prepare' news items, either by inventing them or by basing them on actual events or newspaper accounts.

Since they are such useful sources of lesson material, it is worthwhile taking a closer look at them. For questions of space and pertinence, we will concentrate on short news items - those brief pieces of news conveyed in just a few sentences. Here are three examples from different sources:-

The Air Force is calling the Midget Man's first test flight a partial success - even though it had to be destroyed in flight. Yesterday the missile tumbled out of control seventy seconds after launch from Vandenburg Air Base in California. Officials then gave the command to destroy the controversial weapon.   (CNN - Headline News)
Bad news for the nation's bread basket. The Agriculture Department say the winter wheat crop could be the worst in more than a decade. It is estimated farmers will only harvest less than one and a half billion bushels of wheat, down 8% from last year. The reason: a lingering drought in Kansas and some other major production areas.   (Voice of America)
Two men from west Belfast have been convicted of murdering two soldiers at an IRA funeral in the city last year. Alex Murphy and Henry McGuire were found guilty of the murders of Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes in March 1988.   (BBC TV News)

Let's start off by looking at how tenses work. Yes, of course, since we are describing events which happened in the past, there are examples of the simple past: 'tumbled', 'gave', 'were found' in the above examples. But it is also worth noting that our examples use other tenses, too. None of the first sentences are in the past (the first example uses the present progressive, the third the present perfect and the second story has no verb in its first sentence, though it has more of a present feel to it than anything else).

There seems to be a tendency to make the first sentence as close to the present time as possible - to make it sound more like 'hot news'. For this reason, too, time references such as 'yesterday', 'last night' or 'on Monday' are frequently relegated to the second sentence. Most stories change to the past tense in the second sentence, but sometimes, as in our second example, the present is maintained to give a more dramatic, up-to-the-minute presentation. Verb-less sentences are also not uncommon.

A second point worth noting has to do with the way the whole story is put together, and this is what the 'walls of building blocks' in the title refers to. These news items are too brief to give a point-by-point description of events. In the first of our examples, all three sentences give us more or less the same basic information. The subject of the story is the Midget Man (the missile /the controversial weapon) which had to be destroyed in flight (officials then gave the command to destroy). As a first test flight (from Vandenburg Air Base in California), it is claimed to be a partial success (it tumbled out of control seventy seconds after launch).

We are not told the story in a linear or chronological manner. What we have is an initial basic sentence on which a number of other sentences are built. Each sentence is made up of a series of 'blocks' of information - the people/objects involved, the events, etc. - and by building sentence upon sentence, we get an inter-related, cohesive 'wall'. From one sentence to another, information will be repeated and new details - perhaps names, places, dates - will be added.

Our 'wall of building blocks' might look something like this:-

3rd sentenceSmith,a British subject,was carryingfour kilos of cocainein his suitcase.
2nd sentenceJohn Smithwas stoppedat customslast night,as he was re-entering Britain.
1st sentenceA manhas been arrestedin Doverfor smugglingdrugs

The purpose of this cohesive method of construction is to aid understanding. If the first sentence leaves us slightly unsure what the story is all about, one or more of the following sentences will put things straight. Broadcast news must be clear on a first hearing, and this also implies that sentences are likely to be fairly short, simple in construction (notice how relative clauses are usually avoided) and easy to understand - anything that a newscaster might consider confusing or find difficult to say should be avoided.

Naturally this kind of 'building-block' pattern means that many central elements in the story have to be referred to over and over again. Although repetition is sometimes used, it is more stylish to resort to alternatives - what a linguist or a literary critic would call 'elegant variation' - and this is another major feature to note. We find the Midget Man, for example, being referred to as a 'missile' and again as a 'controversial weapon'. At times we find close synonyms being used (weapon/missile - or - convicted/guilty), other times there may be near repetitions (of murdering/of the murders - or - winter wheat crop/wheat) and sometimes we have explanations (a partial success/the missile tumbled out of control seventy seconds after launch - or - last year/in March 1988).

These distinctive features of short news reports are fairly widespread, though it is important to stress that exceptions are found and indeed variety is essential. A closer look at a longer news story, which may well include an interview or an account from an on-the-spot reporter, will also reveal many of these characteristics of this variety of language.

An awareness of these features can also help us to make these extracts more accessible to learners. It is worth checking that students clearly understand why a tense change has been made (especially from the present perfect to the past). A useful comprehension exercise is to ask students to write down all the information given about one facet of the story that is mentioned in the first sentence (eg the Midget Man). Or they can be asked to listen out for synonyms/alternatives for given words or expressions. For more advanced students, the 'building block' system can be explained, and groups can be asked to draw up a schematic wall.

News reports may be short, but they can be quite intriguing from a language point of view and very useful from a teaching point of view. Students are generally quite enthusiastic about listening to broadcast news programmes or trying to write their own news reports, and some guidance with style can clearly be helpful.

   Published in Modern English Teacher (Vol 3/3, July 1994) Macmillan, London.




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