The Economist took a look at how it’s not passive voice or active voice that creates the biggest problem for writers and readers. It’s “weasel voice” writing that does the most damage. The article makes several key points about clarity and information that you can use, even if you aren’t covering political insurgencies or violent insurrections. Consider what weasel voice does and what we can do to fix the problems:
Weasel voice hides the identity of the person committing an action:Passive voice provides readers with a limited amount of information because we lack crucial information about the “who” in the sentence.
That and a separate arrest for jumping a fence at a University of Texas-El Paso facility have long been a matter of record in O’Rourke’s public life, both on the El Paso City Council and in Congress. But the unexplained details of the crash and DWI in Anthony, a suburb about 20 miles north of El Paso that borders New Mexico, could now emerge as a potential attack point in his quest to unseat Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
Emphasis mine because WHAT THE HONEY BAKED CHRIST.
“Could now emerge.” From whence, pray tell, could this “attack point” (ugh) “emerge?” The mists of Avalon? The reeking trash of whatever Cruz-tinted Super-PAC farted this into the Houston Chronicle’s tipline? And what the hell is a “potential attack point” anyway? Because Beto wasn’t already getting tarred as a soft-on-crime peacefreak who wants to let serial killers out of jail to rape white Texas debutantes?
I mean, I know the answers to these questions because I read and interpret stuff like this for a living and once upon a long time ago before the earth’s crust cooled I wrote it, too, and the answer is either I’m not really confident in what I’m saying or I don’t want to upset anybody or I’m doing somebody’s job for them, and all of these are bad reasons to write a news story.
You use this kind of language to disavow responsibility for what you’re doing, and it’s cowardly, and it’s one of many reasons people left journalism in droves: the demand to use bloodless language to describe bloody things.
Lest you think I’m just picking on one line in this story, here we go again a few paragraphs later:
Neither arrest has factored significantly into O’Rourke’s political career, though both were used against him in his successful 2012 campaign against former El Paso Congressman Silvestre Reyes in a predominantly Hispanic district.
The law enforcement reports show two elements of the incident that have been overlooked: that there was a crash involved, and that O’Rourke allegedly attempted to flee.
Overlooked by whom? A good editor (and a good writer) would address that obvious point.
Doc and I were having a conversation a few weeks back about the endless blogger ethics panel we’re having, and I couldn’t have invented a better example of how American journalism today has defined “acting ethically” as “not upsetting anyone” which leads to “writing so opaque that absolutely no one is served.” If I’m a reader, not a political operative or a journalist, how does this O’Rourke story serve me? What does it tell me that I don’t already know?
Is the writer saying with these grafs that voters SHOULD have rejected O’Rourke previously, based on this police report and his other arrest? If you have a point, just make it. Hell, do what a really creative reporter would do and find a local university poli-sci professor who likes seeing his name in print and get HIM to make your point for you. This mealy-mouthed nonsense serves no one.
It doesn’t even shield the paper from criticism, which would be a chickenassed enough reason to do anything. I know all Super Savvy Reporters think the job is done if everyone’s mad at them but sometimes everyone’s mad at you because you’ve done something bad and stupid, like write a story about imaginary scenarios without any attribution whatsoever.
Schmucks. Weasel-voiced schmucks.