The concept of “weasel voice” in writing and several ways we can avoid it in journalism

The “holy trinity” of noun-verb-object that we discussed at length in both books is all about trying to effectively communicate in an active-voice format. The structure of “who did what to whom/what” makes a lot of sense and clearly provides key information to readers. However, writing in active voice doesn’t always guarantee you are meeting the needs of your readers.

The Economist took a look at how it’s not passive voice or active voice that creates the biggest problem for writers and readers. It’s “weasel voice” writing that does the most damage. The article makes several key points about clarity and information that you can use, even if you aren’t covering political insurgencies or violent insurrections. Consider what weasel voice does and what we can do to fix the problems:

Weasel voice hides the identity of the person committing an action: Passive voice provides readers with a limited amount of information because we lack crucial information about the “who” in the sentence. For example:

The bank on Appleton Avenue was robbed at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon.

The “who” in here is not only unclear but missing as “by a criminal” is implied. However, writing this sentence in active voice doesn’t help things any if we don’t have specific information on that person doing the robbing:

A gunman robbed the bank on Appleton Avenue on Wednesday afternoon.

What people want to know is WHO robbed the bank, which is usually information that isn’t available in crime stories so we tend to give the reporter a pass on this. Where this becomes more problematic is when journalists let vague statements slide into their copy or fail to push sources for more specifics. Here’s a “weasel voice” approach in both active and passive voice structures:

Passive: Sen. Carl Jones said he and his colleagues were sent complaints about voter fraud, which is what made the ID law necessary.

Active: People sent complaints to senators regarding voter fraud, Sen. Carl Jones said, which is what made the ID law necessary.

Let’s do some “weasel analysis:”

  • In neither sentence do we know HOW MANY complaints were lodged.
  • In neither sentence do we know HOW ACCURATE those complaints are.
  • In neither sentence do we IDENTIFY the PEOPLE who complained.

As a journalist, you want to press for these details so you can see how big of a deal this is:

Of the 720 poll workers in his state, 653 reported finding multiple cases of voter impersonation in the 2016 presidential election, Sen. Carl Jones said as he backed a voter ID law Tuesday.

OR

Despite only one case of alleged voter impersonation in the 2.8 million ballots cast in his state, Sen. Carl Jones said a voter ID law is crucial to the democratic process.

Weasel voice allows for unproven allegations: The rumor mill is always robust in politics, small towns and junior high school. As I have to deal with family members in all three of these areas, I find myself saying “says who?” a lot in my daily life. Here’s an actual conversation I had last year with my seventh-grader:

Zoe: Daddy, one of the boys at school was expelled for threatening to beat up the principal.
Me: Who told you that?
Zoe: (NAME) said at lunch that she heard…
Me: Wait, is that the kid who keeps telling you every year since fourth grade that she’s moving to California? And she still hasn’t?
Zoe: Yeah, but…
Me: Uh-huh…

The weasel voice approach hides sources, so readers have no way of knowing how likely something is to occur. Political writers and sports journalists often start sentences with “Sources have told me that…” and then they explain something that nobody wanted to say on the record. I had conversations with high-end reporters in both sports and politics who said they couldn’t operate any other way.

First, I find that a bit weak, as it’s the grown-up, journalistic version of “Everybody does it!” If I didn’t get to stay out past curfew or get a purple mohawk with that excuse when I was a kid, I’m not buying it now from professional journalists.

Second, it’s often a case of just letting accusations slide without pushing back on them. Don’t let anyone tell you “everybody is saying” or “I’m hearing that X is the case” or whatever else. CNN pulled this together from a series of statements President Trump made before and after the election and you can see why this is a concern:

Weasel voice allows me to say pretty much anything with a vague attribution of “people said” or “sources said” or “everyone is saying.” When you have a source providing you with information based on those vague attributions, do more to get concrete answers or consider not publishing the statements without additional proof.

Weasel voice falsely emboldens you to make hyperbolic claims: Here are a few key terms I’d include in the “weasel voice” lexicon that you should avoid:

  • Allegedly
  • Arguably
  • Supposedly
  • Said to
  • Mostly
  • Traditionally
  • In recent memory
  • Believed to be
  • Might
  • Uncertain

Now, not all of these words are bad words, but they tend to lend themselves to creating bad sentences more often than not. When you use these words in “weasel voice,” you allow yourself to make bigger claims than you can prove because you feel like you hedged your bet. Consider this:

Springfield High School Principal Beth Barlenga allegedly took $15,000 from the school’s milk money fund to purchase an ostrich coat for her 30-year high school reunion.

OK, who is doing the alleging and how likely are we to believe this person?

Springfield High School Principal Beth Barlenga stole $15,000 from the school’s milk money fund to purchase an ostrich coat for her 30-year high school reunion, prosecutor Dan Standford told a jury Wednesday.

In some cases, you can’t wrap it all up in a single attribution, but that doesn’t give you the right to avoid telling people where you got this stuff. Here’s an approach that takes a bit longer to get the scenario in place, but it’s worth the wait:

Springfield High School Beth Barlenga wore a coat made of ostrich to her 30-year high school reunion this weekend, according to former classmates Carla Jackson and Marty McKeeper. McKeeper said she bragged that it cost more than $15,000 and that “nobody here could afford it.”

Meanwhile, district accountant Carl Spackler filed a report stating that the milk money fund at Barlenga’s school came up $15,000 short during a recent audit. Springfield police spokesman Adam Bronzer said the department filed charges against Barlenga, accusing her of the theft.

Don’t try to write around the hard work of reporting. Do the job and show people how you know what you know. Here’s another example of how weasel voice can eliminate your responsibility as a reporter:

Brett Favre is arguably the most durable player in the history of the National Football League.

Again, who is doing the arguing and why is it we should believe this person? In most cases, it means that the reporter wants to say it to be true, but knows he or she can’t without being accused of relying on opinion to make the point.

How do you fix this? It’s called looking stuff up:

Brett Favre set a record for durability in the National Football League, starting 297 consecutive regular season games despite suffering multiple serious injuries. According to an ESPN report on his streak, Favre sustained a first-degree shoulder separation, severely sprained his left ankle, coughed up blood, sprained his right thumb, sprained  his lateral collateral ligament of the left knee, broke his left thumb, sprained his right hand, tore his right biceps and sustained a stress fracture of the left ankle but kept playing.

Looking stuff up can be annoying, but it’s better than faking it, as too many weak writers are willing to do:

The collapse of the Highway 441 bridge killed 12 people and injured 43 more, making it the worst disaster of its kind in recent memory.

Who’s doing the remembering? Probably the reporter who didn’t want to bother to look something up. “In recent memory” is one of those wonderful safety nets that allows for hyperbole without responsibility. When an editor says, “Hey what about X disaster?” the writer can say, “Oh, I didn’t remember that…” Good grief. Also, in most of the student newsrooms I have encountered the term “back in the day” usually means about a year and a half ago.

Just look stuff up:

The collapse of the Highway 441 bridge, which killed 12 people and injured 43 more Wednesday, was the deadliest disaster of its kind since Minneapolis’ I-35 bridge fell into the Mississippi River in 2007, killing 13 and injuring 143.

Not perfect, but at least the facts are there.

Keep an eye out in your writing for spots where vague statements need more support, weasel words provide a sentence with a crutch or allegations randomly occur without the proper backing. Once you learn the ways of the weasel, you can use your writing skills to defeat them.

 

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