Monday, March 28, 2016

Let's outlaw passive voice in newswriting

News item provided by the Associated Press, repeated by a local public broadcasting affiliate: "The Russell Station power generation plant, an iconic landmark near the Lake Ontario shoreline outside Rochester, is being torn down."

Russell Station photo by RChappo2002, via
Flickr (Creative Commons License 2.0).
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/rchappo2002/
Really?

The "is being torn down" is Exhibit One in the case of the AP tearing down journalistic writing. Passive voice -- leaning on a wobbly "to be" verb instead of an active verb -- weakens any writing.

Marketing communications and public relations agencies will cough up the occasional passive-verb hairball in news releases. For example: a release from the Del Prado law firm relies on "has been serving" instead of "has served." This suggests that neither the agency or MyPRGenie has newswriting skill.

AP and other news organizations shouldn't fall into the same trap. It creates flabby, dull writing that makes readers ask: why should I care?

Instead of this:  The Russell Station power generation plant, an iconic landmark near the Lake Ontario shoreline outside Rochester, is being torn down. Crews have begun demolishing the facility located in the Monroe County town of Greece. 

How about this: Crews this week started demolishing the landmark Russell Station power plant near Lake Ontario, just north of Rochester, NY.

I opted for immediacy and fewer words. I also dropped the windy "iconic" descriptor. The Colosseum in Rome and the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur are iconic. The Russell Station plant looks much the same as any other smokestack coal-fired power plant from the 1940s. It's a landmark, in the sense that it's visible to passing boaters and motorists, and hard to confuse with other structures on that area of the Lake Ontario shoreline.

Come on, AP. Before you deride lame PR writing, please outlaw your dependence on passive verbs. Thank you.