The problem with writing in active voice is that you have to introduce at the top of the sentence the source of the action being reported upon. And if you write it that way, it can simply ruin a good story. Here are two leads for a news story. Which do you think is sexier?
- The federal government has been issued a challenge to account for a billion dollar hole in its budget.
- The federal opposition has issued a challenge to the federal government to account for an alleged billion dollar hole in its budget.
But in the world of real-time publishing, where journalists are constantly seeking to 'refresh' stories hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute and make them entertaining, these issues around who said something become rather inconvenient. Instead, the more important thing is WHAT was said, irrespective of the source. The problem with revealing too early in the piece the source of the claim is that it robs the piece of its news value and leads to inconvenient observations such as "Well, they WOULD say that, wouldn't they?"
Which brings me to the theme of this post, which is the storm in the twitterverse over the last week about the Bligh government in Queensland "bowing to pressure", according to News Ltd, over calls for a Royal Commission into the floods disaster. Typically, the source of the "pressure" in this case was not revealed. The implication, as always, was that "the pressure" was from the general community, as expressed in the editorial pages of The Australian. In fact, there was no "pressure". The government in Queensland was always going to hold an inquiry into one of the worst natural disasters in Australia's history. And the notion that this action stemmed from the fearless journalism of Murdoch's hacks was so typically self-serving.
But it isn't just the Murdoch media that excel in passive voiced news without an obvious source. The ABC specialises in it, particularly since it went online. It is now de rigeur for the ABC to run unsourced claims in headlined quotes - NBN Will be 'No Nirvana' for Cheap Broadband - because to run the source in the headline would rob the item of its newsworthiness. Sure enough, the source of that last quoted headline was none other than Malcolm Turnbull, which rather depowers the story. Where is the old chief of staff telling the reporter "well, what did you expect him to say?" And spiking the story.
It is simply NOT NEWS to say "Gillard is Under Pressure" when the alleged source of that pressure is an Opposition spokesman sticking out a press release on a quiet Sunday night. Once again, under-resourced newsrooms having to update stories once or twice an hour are desperate for fresh leads. The spin doctors know their predicament, so they spoon feed them half-baked press releases with 'throw forward' intros that fit a neat hole in the schedule. This is why you so often hear: "The federal government is expected to come under renewed pressure this week..."
Expected by WHOM? Where is the pressure coming from? Who says it is 'pressure'? In the olden days, we used to call the people who asked those questions 'journalists'. These days, though, so many of the guardians of our democracy are mere typists.