I recently ran across this critical view of “bureaucratic language” in journalism. According to the writer interviewed:
“[Bureaucratic language] removes the actors from their actions, thereby obscuring attributions of responsibility and leaving the reader with little information about cause and effect. These absences are particularly problematic when it comes to reporting on complex political and social issues. If one of the roles of journalism is to promote accountability, then our reporting must not shield responsible actors through our syntactic structure.”
The example in the article is that of an “officer-involved shooting” – which is a particularly tortured way to avoid saying directly that an officer shot a civilian. The construction is not technically the passive voice, but has the same effect, erasing the person who’s actually doing something, in this case, shooting someone.
For me, one way to avoid this weaselly wording is a grammatical principle that I initially encountered a few years ago in the University of Chicago's "Little Red Schoolhouse" and the related book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams. The principle is now the basis for much of my line editing.
As I'm reading a draft manuscript, I identify its main “characters,” the handful of agents (human or nonhuman, concrete or abstract) that the text is intended to be about. In academic articles, these are often the keywords; for this short blog post, they are something like bureaucratic language, the quality of writing, characters, accountability, etc.
Then I go back through the document line by line and make suggested edits so that most of the sentences have those characters as their main (grammatical) subjects. Of course not all of the sentences need to be structured that way; there are other details or tangents that the author likely wants to cover.
This approach is mostly about improving the clarity and cadence of the text. But it also can help ensure that the "man behind the curtain," so to speak, is revealed.
For more on this “debasement of language" in the name of obscuring powerful actors, see George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language" or the call from contemporary writer Rebecca Solnit to describe climate change as a form of violence.