May 2008

Link of the Week:

Any time you need to track the status of a particular bill as it moves through the U.S. Congress, there’s OpenCongress.

From the ‘About’ section:

OpenCongress brings together official government data with news coverage, blog posts, comments, and more to give you the real story behind what’s happening in Congress. Small groups of political insiders and lobbyists already know what’s really going on in Congress. We think everyone should be an insider.

OpenCongress is a free, open-source, non-profit, and non-partisan web resource with a mission to make Congress more transparent and to encourage civic engagement. OpenCongress is a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation.

One especially handy feature is that the site offers RSS feeds not only of a bill’s status, but also related news and blog coverage. I have feeds set up for all the sexual orientation-related bills working their way through Congress, since that’s what I cover. OpenCongress is a very good way to make sure you don’t miss any action on a bill of interest… especially if it’s a bill that does not get a lot of media coverage.

We’re done in by the passive voice

It’s nothing new for editors and journalism teachers to inveigh against the use of the passive voice in newswriting. In fact, that’s an understatement. Such exhortations are commonplace, trite, and boring; they’re the first chapter in every writing guide. And still, the passive voice is everywhere in news copy. I fix a dozen passive voice sentences a day in copy from our stringers, writers and wire services, and still some get by me. So here is my brief harangue on the subject.

First, a definition. The passive voice is a verb form in which the subject of the sentence is the thing being acted upon, instead of the thing doing the acting.

John’s ice cream is being eaten.

…instead of…

Sally is eating John’s ice cream.

As these examples demonstrate, there are two basic problems with the passive voice in newswriting (or really, in any kind of writing).

  1. The first is simply the stylistic fact that the passive voice makes for a less, well, active sentence. Passive voice sentences are just boring and flat, especially in constructions longer than the examples above. In large part, that’s because the action described is hard to visualize. Why? That brings us to the second point.
  2. The passive voice often disguises who is performing the action described. In the passive voice example above, we have no idea who is eating John’s ice cream. We can’t visualize the sentence except with a kind of blank space where “Sally” goes. (One could add that information: “John’s ice cream is being eaten by Sally.” But that’s just a longer and more awkward way of saying what would be brief and to-the-point in the active voice).

This is the journalistic problem with the passive voice. Deliberately or accidentally, it hides who is doing what to whom, and that’s bad journalism.

Sometimes (rarely) the passive voice is a necessary evil, when the ‘actor’ in the sentence is unknown or totally irrelevant.

Forty women and children were found dead in a remote Nigerian village this morning.

If this came to me from my wire service and I didn’t know who found them, I’d be kind of stuck with the lede. But oftentimes, the passive voice can be fixed with a resort to one of the all-purpose ‘actors.’ Thus,

Residents of the Shaw neighborhood are being urged to boil their water until further notice.

…can easily be made active voice.

City officials are urging Shaw residents to boil their water until further notice.

“Officials” are, by far, the most beloved generic ‘actors.’ “A spokesman,” “police,” and “the administration” (as appropriate) are also very popular. (Comment if you can think of any others. I’m momentarily stumped.)

As I implied earlier, beginning newswriters seem to crank out passive voice sentences left and right. But with practice (or enough negative feedback from your editor), it’s possible to develop very sensitive antennae that will ring an alarm every time you write or read something in the passive voice. And when that alarm rings, it’s time to ask “Why is that line in the passive voice? Is it because who did what to whom is being hidden?” (Catch the hidden passive voice sentence in the forgoing paragraph and win a prize.)

Their system vs. ours

I’d like to say a few words about the differences between parliamentary democracies, such as they have in the UK, Canada, and most other places in the world, and presidential republics like we have in the US. I’d like to say a few words, but it’s pretty hard, because the differences are many and complex — worthy of the sort of lengthy essay one might find on Wikipedia.

But because the topic comes up constantly in my work (reporting on gay-related bills passing through foreign parliaments) and because college poli sci classes seem to do an awfully bad job of explaining this stuff to students who become my interns, I want to highlight just a couple of the principal differences between the two systems — in very brief outline.

The main difference between the two systems of government is that parliamentary democracies have no separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. That is, the majority party (or coalition of parties) in Parliament is the government, and foreign newspapers use the terms “the government” and “majority party(s)” interchangeably. Typically, the government is led by a Prime Minister with the support of a bunch of cabinet ministers* (in charge of defense, foreign relations, health services and so on), all of whom are also voting members of parliament.

The members of the cabinet are usually referred to as “front-benchers,” because that’s where they sit in the Parliament. The minority or “opposition” parties (or “opposition coalition”) usually assemble a team of leaders or experts on all the cabinet ministries, who are referred to as “shadow ministers” or “critics” (Shadow Health Minister or Health Critic, etc.) Because of their seating location in Parliament, these opposition leaders are collectively referred to as “back-benchers.”

I could go on and on about how these differences affect the political system, how bills pass, and so forth (although there’s considerable variation from country to country), but I’ll stop here. I’ll probably add other pertinent observations later, as they arise in my work.

*I hope it goes without saying that in the context of a government, “minister” does not refer to a member of the clergy. A government minister in a parliamentary system corresponds to a cabinet secretary in the US system: (Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Health and Human Services, etc.)

Link of the Week:

In the last Link of the Week, I described a few tips for hunting people down using the Swiss Army Knife of search engines, Google. This week, I want to mention a people-finder site that is more of a precision tool for the same job:

The Zoominfo search engine is specifically optimized for extracting the names of people and companies, and attempting to thread all that information together to produce ad hoc sort of résumés for the individuals in its database. Zoominfo lets you search for names, companies, or jobs — and only those three things. You can refine your search by location, company name, and a few other parameters. In other words, it’s a good specialty tool for find people who have at least some business presence on the web.

Zoominfo’s system is far from perfect: Sometimes single individuals have several different entries, as if they were different people; sometimes various individuals with the same or similar name get smushed together into a single (confusing) entry; and many people don’t appear at all — especially those who haven’t built up web identities in the business world. But for what it is, Zoominfo is another handy tool for your people-hunting toolbox. And more to come!

Link of the Week: Man- (or woman-) hunt via Google

One extremely common task for a reporter is tracking someone down, be they the subject of a story, a witness, an expert, a bad guy or whatever. I hardly need to say that the routine first stop in such a search is Google. But searching for individuals via Google is not entirely as simple as it seems, so this brief entry will offer a few tips.

Although I generally favor literal searches in Google (those “in quotes,” or with a hyphen-between-the-words) because they narrow down the results to the exact phrase you’re looking for, they don’t work as well with names. That’s because the name of a single individual can appear in many different formats: Tim Curran | Timothy Curran | Timothy A. Curran | Timothy Augustin Curran | Curran, Timothy | Curran, Timothy A. | Timmy Curran… etc., etc., etc.

For this reason, I usually do name searches on Google using just the first and last name, without surrounding quotes. For this purpose, Google has most other search engines beat, because it does the best job of interpreting the query as a name, and returning results that include not just the name in the query, but all the likely variants as well.

In the case of very common names (e.g. “Mark Johnson”), it may be necessary to put the name in quotes, and to try a few variants. It also might be helpful to throw in a related search term or two (a job title, or city, or anything else likely to turn up in a description) that narrow the results. But in such instances, it is often helpful to try more ‘people’ specific search engines, about which, more in the next Link of the Week.

Back in service

You may have thought I was slacking in my blog duties, or just forgot about you. But in fact, due to a big ‘oopsie’ by my web host, this blog and my web gallery have both been offline for the better part of a week. But now that they’re back in service, I will endeavor to catch up.