One of the commonly asserted principles of Good Writing is that the passive voice is to be avoided at all costs; or, should I say, you should avoid the passive voice at all costs. And while there’s probably some tedious Strunk & Whitey rationale why simple declarative sentences are best — something I hope we can all agree is not always true — there is one excellent reason to beware of the passive voice, and that is that it obscures who it is who’s doing or saying something, seemingly assigning an action to an omniscient deity or the universe itself.
If that was all too oblique, let’s go with an example: this article from We Are Iowa headlined “New Des Moines Buccaneers arena expected to bring in $126M annually once built.”
What does this headline tell us? It seems to be saying that once the city of Des Moines opens a new arena for something called the Buccaneers (they’re a junior hockey team, we covered this a little over a week ago, try to keep up), you can expect it to bring in $126 million a year. What it actually says is that some particular person expects it to bring in $126 million a year. And that person is:
Chief Executive Officer Liz Holland of Merle Hay Investors, the company that owns Merle Hay Mall, said the 3,500-seat arena will bring in around $126 million annually and create around 1,000 new jobs.
In case it’s not clear, maybe because the article never says, Merle Hay Investors is also the company that wants to build the arena (in a failed mall), and get $30 million in state funding to do it. Perhaps readers might take the prediction with a grain of salt if only they knew that.
Perhaps, for that matter, they might like to know what exactly “bring in $126 million” means. In tax revenue? In arena gross revenue? In arena profits? The arena is supposed to hold 3,500 people, so if it’s in operation, say, 150 nights a year (which would be pretty good as arenas go), that’s 525,000 people total, each of whom would have to spend $240 on each trip just to get to $126 million in raw economic activity.
We met We Are Iowa once before a couple of weeks ago, when it reported on a minor-league soccer team in Des Moines looking for subsidies of its own for a new stadium, without ever explaining exactly how much money or what the city council was voting on. It turns out to be the … let’s go with “cleverly” named website of WOI-TV, which is owned by Tegna, the former Gannett TV station umbrella company that was spun off in 2015.
Not having spent much time watching Iowa TV, I can’t say whether WOI has always been especially terrible at reporting, or if printing developers’ bald assertions as fact is some new efficiency measure to break down the filters between PR and web readers’ eyeballs. The article linked above from the Des Moines Register — which is owned by Gannett proper — isn’t much better in terms of providing details or explanation, but at least sort of says who Holland is, which is the bare minimum for a journalism passing grade. Just straight-up printing corporate press releases as reality may be a worsening journalistic trend, but that doesn’t mean it’s something up with which we should put.