No matter which channel you tune into or what local broadcast you receive, news anchors share one common trait beyond professional attire and perfect hair. They tend to sound exactly the same, from their cadence to enunciation to a completely curious lack of a regional accent. How does that happen?
Broadcasters didn’t always sound so geographically neutral. In the early part of the 20th century, many radio personalities and performers adopted what was known as a Mid-Atlantic accent, or a blend of mannered British and the East Coast dialect of the United States. This polished, proper method of speaking was popular in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and on radio because it signaled some kind of upper-class education and erudition. Thanks to America’s infatuation with England, sounding even vaguely British made people sound intelligent. Pundits like William F. Buckley Jr. carried the Mid-Atlantic torch even as it fell out of favor in entertainment.
The more contemporary practice of sounding linguistically neutral is often referred to as having a General American accent—which is a bit misleading, since there’s really not much of an accent at all. Also referred to as Standard American, Broadcast English, or Network English, General American was a term first used in the 1920s and '30s by linguists who wanted to isolate a more widespread accent than the New England or Southern dialects. The scholar George Philip Krapp used the phrase in his 1925 book The English Language in America; linguist John Kenyon referred to it in his 1930 title American Pronunciation, where he insisted that 90 million Americans spoke General American.
As the century wore on, a wider range of regional accents were recognized, and it became almost impossible to generalize between New England, Southern, and General American. Though some linguists disagree on the definition of General American, it’s still largely considered a speaking voice that lacks regional flair.
So why do news anchors rely on it? One of the biggest reasons is to keep their employment opportunities open. Local anchors who deliver the nightly news for affiliate stations are often vagabonds, taking jobs across the country, and those different networks prefer a General American accent. If an anchor hailing from the South committed to delivering the day’s top stories in a Southern accent, for example, it’s not likely a New York station would feel viewers could warm to them. Likewise, a Brooklyn accent might sound peculiar when Los Angeles residents want a rundown of local headlines.
But an accent is only a portion of a broadcaster’s delivery. At broadcasting schools, television journalists are trained to speak at a moderate speed and enunciate each word clearly. (Whether they realize it or not, young broadcasters may also start out emulating their news anchor heroes who had impeccable diction, like Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel.) No letters are dropped. Sentences are composed for ease of reading off a teleprompter.
Plain speaking also needs to fit whatever footage is being shown while the anchor is talking. Uneven modulation could be distracting, though some anchors do choose to emphasize words by drawing them out (“muur-der”) or adopt a more somber tone when reporting on tragic events.
Some anchors have also reported being more careful with their speech because broadcast microphones are often unforgiving. Words beginning with P tend to pop, for example. Broadcasting school drills out the kind of casual and conversational voice that doesn’t translate well to a newscast.
Of course, some linguists believe there’s no such thing as being totally free of an accent. A Southerner trying to remove any trace of a drawl is going to sound different than someone from New England attempting to do the same. We may not notice simply because humans aren’t that great at recognizing more subtle accents, especially our own. Broadcasters may sound alike in large part because they all enunciate and attempt to achieve articulatory precision. Few anchors will say “dubya.” They will say “double-you.” But that occasional “dubya” is what makes speech patterns sound different.
And that’s all the news we have today.
Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at email@example.com.