One of my favorite parts of Neil Postman's classic diatribe against television culture, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," is his evisceration of broadcast news through its well-worn phrase, "Now ... this." That statement, Postman said, "is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see."
Postman argued that the phrase was indicative of a mindset in which every single segment being shown is a completely separate event, divorced in "content, context and emotional texture from what precedes and follows it." It's the rejection of news as contextualized information and the embrace of news as pure entertainment.
Since Postman's book was published (1985), the phrase "Now ... this" has all but vanished from the broadcast vocabulary — probably at least in part because of TV journalists' self-consciousness after Postman's reprimand. But the spirit lives on, as the phrase seems to have been replaced by the word "Well." It works like this: As they begin reading stories, anchors often slip in the word "Well," as in, "Well, the governor's veto of a popular seat belt law caught many legislators by surprise today."
It's usually slipped in so quickly that it's difficult to notice, but once you're listening for it, you hear it everywhere. I didn't have to look hard to find a fewexamples from Nebraska TV stations.
So why do news anchors use the word so much, and what are they communicating? Just about the only other time we start statements with "well" is when we're answering a question or responding to a statement. (In some cases, it's an implied question: If you're meeting a friend after taking a big test, you might start by saying, "Well, I didn't exactly ace it," a pre-emptive response to the question she would inevitably have asked.) Used to open a statement, the word "well" is always apropos of something.
Merriam-Webster's sums up this usage of the word aptly, defining it as being "used to indicate resumption of discourse or to introduce a remark." And while the latter might seem to be an easier explanation for the way TV folks use it, the former is actually far more accurate and illustrative. In that use, "Well" serves to continue a thought that's already been brought up. In this way, the word is the natural embodiment of the post-"Now ... this" mindset. Like "Now ... this," it introduces a story with an implicit acknowledgement that "what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see," but unlike that phrase, "Well" is a (probably subconscious) attempt to create the illusion of logical continuity and context where none actually exists.
"Now ... this" made no effort whatsoever to conceal the fact that the images or events that preceded and followed it had no inherent connection to each other. It was absurdly naked in its acknowledgement of that reality. But "Well" is the product of a less arrogant time — it almost seems apologetic in its desire to make you, the viewer, feel as though you're not being jerked back and forth between wildly disparate ideas. The message to the audience is: "Here, let me try to make these stories feel connected for you."
But, of course, these stories aren't connected: That's the fundamental quality that hasn't changed since Postman's era. It's still the same bang-whiz-pow parade of shootings, crashes, animals, children and celebrities it's always been. If "Well" is indeed indicative of an effort to bring some logical coherence to our half-hour news shows, it's a tiny, superficial one in a sea of distraction.