Sloppy, vague sentences are ‘the new normal’ for Australian newspapers

Australian journalists either no longer know how to write clear, concise and grammatical sentences, or they no longer care.

Every day, in ever newspaper in the land, we read sloppy, vague sentences written in the passive voice with hazy attribution and bad grammar.

I’m going to pick on one example in particular, but if you think this is the exception, I’m happy to provide many others.

In the article ‘Viewers desert MasterChef finale amid programming backlash‘, Amanda Meade writes:

The third series of MasterChef Australia was decided last night with Bracks outperforming Adelaide film projectionist Michael Weldon to take out the title thanks to her version of a carrot sorbet snowman from Copenhagen’s famed Noma restaurant, considered the world’s best restaurant.

(Curiously, the same sentence appears word-for-word in this earlier article by Leo Shanahan and Michael Bodey. But newspapers often steal from themselves. Why reinvent the wheel?)

Kate Bracks and Michael Weldon. Picture: Channel 10
Kate Bracks and Michael Weldon celebrate. Picture: Channel 10

What’s wrong with it? Obviously it’s an unnecessarily long and complex multi-clause sentence that uses the weak ‘with’ to connect clauses. The second ‘restaurant’ is redundant. But the cracker is it actually contains not one but two passive verbs. In the one sentence! That’s talent.

You may argue that passive sentences are no big deal. ‘Lighten up, grammar head, it’s just the way people write nowadays, like, move with the times,’ you may say. And you are dead wrong. Idiot.

Passive verbs are not evil per se. But for a journalist, a passive sentence should be a crime because it deliberately conceals information.

Let’s take the first one: “The third series of MasterChef Australia was decided last night”. By whom was it decided? The judges, obviously; we can work that one out for ourselves without too much effort. But how much harder would it have been to say “Bracks won the third series of MasterChef Australia last night, outperforming Adelaide film projectionist …”? Just like that, disposing of the passive sentence, the vagueness about who decided the competition and the ugly ‘with’ connection, and saving two words in the process.

The second passive verb is the cracker. Noma is “considered the world’s best restaurant” by whom? Approximately 2.5 seconds of Googling gave me the answer to that: by the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, published by Restaurant magazine. In fact, Noma has won this award two years running (a fact the MasterChef judges may even have mentioned on the show). But the author(s) was evidently too busy and important to add this detail, instead opting for the vague ‘considered’.

This is simply lazy. But worse, by eliminating attribution, it allows the author to editorialise. Instead of “considered the world’s best restaurant”, she (they) could just as easily have said “considered a rat-infested tourist trap which serves live slugs in engine grease”. By whom? Who knows? The journalist assumes we don’t care.

Journalists use the same trick all the time to insert opinions into what should be straight reporting. “The government program, considered to be a debacle…” or “The minister, considered to be an incompetent boob and serial child molester…” It doesn’t take long, reading Australian political journalism in particular, before you start seeing this happening again and again.

Which makes one wonder if firing all those sub-editors, and having editors whose only talent appears to be firing sub-editors (as opposed to editing articles), has been such a great idea.

(Obviously, Muphry’s Law dictates that there will be at least one grammatical or spelling error in this post.)

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Bill Bennett says:

    Great post.

    One small nit-pick. It’s not Murphy’s Law or Muphry’s Law but Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation.

  2. Fleur says:

    The problem, as far as I can tell, is with this new-fangled ‘education’ that refuses to penalise students for poor writing skills even at university level. This isn’t a problem just in Oz, mind (you should see the standard of journalist ‘interns’ and ‘graduates’ in this country, for example).

    Effect = Too many people entering and continuing in journalism with not even an undergraduate-level understanding of and facility with the primary tool of their trade — the English language.

    Furthermore, low standards beget low standards. (If you accept low standards yourself, you are hardly going to inflict higher ones on your own staff over time….)

    So sez me.

  3. Ben Garden says:

    This totally hit the nail on the head. It sums up everything I can’t stand about the mediocrity of Australian journalism and media. Bravo.

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