Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 14:42 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 14:42 | SYDNEY

Beware the passive voice


Sam Roggeveen


6 October 2010 11:10

Here's a tip for young media consumers: when journalists covering a political controversy slip into the passive voice, there's a good chance they are trying to disguise their own involvement in the controversy in order to maintain the facade that they are mere observers.

Case in point: the latest dreary controversy concerning the Opposition Leader's plans to travel to Afghanistan. The Prime Minister is predictably making hay from Abbott's unfortunate remark that he put off his Afghanistan visit due to worries about jet lag. But she's doing it while attending an important international conference in Brussels. And according to the Herald Sun, that means:

The issue overshadowed the second and final day of the Asia Europe Meeting Ms Gillard has been attending in the Belgian capital.

AAP was even more emphatic:

Her spat with Mr Abbott, who she used to share a weekly spot with on breakfast television, has easily overshadowed Australia's uneventful first appearance at ASEM.

In both cases, the use of passive voice deliberately evades the question of who's responsible for the overshadowing. Because the answer is obvious: it's the news media itself which chooses to focus on these controversies. It's not like there's some supernatural force out there deciding what today's news priorities ought to be; reporters and their editors get to make that call.

The Herald Sun story illustrates how important the choice of news priorities can be. The passage immediately after the sentence quoted above goes like this: 

(Gillard) said the meeting had been useful because it had addressed key issues of importance to Australia including the need to continue the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, and the need for stronger and more concerted regulatory reform and greater transparency in the international finance system. She said the leaders acknowledged that there was still some "fragility'' in the global economic system, and "that we need to continue to pursue fiscal consolidation, and work together to promote economic growth.''

Yes, at a superficial level, these are all dry, dull, dusty topics. And maybe the ASEM Meeting didn't produce any actual news – it wouldn't be a first for an international conference. But for goodness sake, the world is still coping with the effects of the financial meltdown and there's a war on in Afghanistan. Aren't those more interesting stories than Tony Abbott's jet lag'