The Importance of Active vs. Passive Voice in Protest Coverage

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I wanted to use the two tweets from NYT to explain active versus passive voice and why it matters in news coverage (particularly when covering charged topics at the moment).

A sentence typically has a clear subject and verb. When you write a sentence, you can write in active or passive voice. Active voice is subject then verb. An example is “I fixed the car.” Passive is an inversion of this i.e. “The car was fixed by me.” There are levels of active and passive voice, particularly relating to the subject and verb. Examples:

Joshua sliced an apple
A man sliced an apple
An apple was sliced by Joshua
An apple was sliced by a man
An apple was sliced
The slicing of an apple was by a man

The subject of the sentence is the most important part, and usually comes at the beginning. When it comes at the end, our brain is less likely to register it as important as it is. Another effect created in the difference between active and passive is assumed agency.

Active voice takes ownership (someone did something) while passive voice makes ownership more nebulous (something was done by someone). It distances the wrong thing away from the subject. This is because passive voice makes the direct object the subject in the technical sense (even if it is not the subject in the literal sense), which blurs the meaning of the sentence. Though this may seem like English grammar nerd stuff, we understand this intrinsically. As a child, when you knock over the cookie jar, you tell mommy “it fell over” not “I knocked it over.” When “we” do something wrong, we write in passive voice. When “they” do something wrong, we write in active voice.In public relations, when your company did something good, make it active; if you are doing damage control, write in passive voice. If you fought someone, for example, wouldn’t you say “I was involved in a fight with Joshua,” you’d say “I fought Joshua.”

When news org write headlines, they should stay in active voice. It’s generally more objective, it’s reporting in the traditional sense and gives the reader a clear understanding of what happened (who what where when why how). However, journalists are conscious of the power their wording has and make choices about whether they will assume active or passive voice. They know that, unfortunately, active voice can have come across accusatory, even if it is the reporting of verifiable facts or reasonable news-framing. So when they are writing about things that reflect negatively on certain institutions or people (the state, the army, the police, etc.), they may feel compelled to write in passive voice (example: “A village in Afghanistan was demolished after an airstrike the U.S. took part in”).

In the tweet on the left, the sentence reads that four “officers involved in the arrest of a man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee” had been fired. The writer of this tweet choose to use passive or more indirect verbs like “involved in the arrest” and “died.” Also, the officer killed this man. An active way to write this sentence would have been “Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis tweeted Tuesday afternoon that 4 officers had been fired after one officer killed a man from pinning his knee on the man’s neck during an arrest.”

In the tweet on the right, three things happened: a reporter was shot in the eye, protestors struck a journalist, a reporter was hit by a pepper ball. Looking at the sentence in the middle, we know who did what. This is an active sentence. Looking at the sentence on the top and bottom, who is the person who committed this violence? Technically, we don’t know. It just happened. The connotation is that it may be unknowable, particularly in a riot. It was a random crime in the chaos and cacophony of all that was going on.

If you read the news and you give this headline a quick glance, what clear “facts” would you take away? The only one would be that protestors beat a journalist. And since you don’t know did the violence in the other two instances, you have to guess who. Was it protestors? Was it police?

Your guess is going to largely conform to your prior knowledge or bias. If you have been following reporting, crowdsourced videos and live-streaming from those at the protests, you would know that police have been committed some of this violence (shooting people with non-deadly ammunition), and you get a picture of both sides. However, if you tend to be more pro-police and are not privy to all the reporting, you likely may assume that all of the aforementioned violence was by protestors.

As a note, it would be easy to say “Well people should read the article.” I would say that’s both fair and unfair. People should verify the news they read. But we are also being bombarded with new info every second of everyday. Most readers share stories without reading them. News outlets have an ethical responsibility to make the news they report accurate and easy to understand to the common reader. They should attribute agency in headlines and tweets in the most even-handed way they can.

Make sure to pay attention when you see news outlets write in passive voice or blur agency. They are making very subtle assessments. And that’s not even bringing race into it. But when you do, active vs passive illuminates—in a very subtle way—a judgement.

Adding race into it, as a generally knowledgeable news-consumer (I’m a communication professor and journalist), I very rarely see news outlets write about the crimes of black folk in passive voice. They typically write about black crime in active voice, giving black people agency for the things they do. However, they are far more likely to write about the crimes of white folk, especially if they are police, in passive voice.

This is telling. It gives you hints about agency and guilt, who deserves the benefit of the doubt and who doesn’t; who gets juxtaposed with their crimes and who gets distanced from them. At the very least, they have internalized the subliminal culture understandings (that we all get) that “you don’t write about those people in that way.”

When journalists and news outlets write about police violence in passive voice, but write about the violence of black people in active voice, they are making a value judgement. It may not seem “deep,” but can be an implicit cultural commentary. I would argue that journalists have an ethical, professional and moral obligation to remain in active voice and attribute agency clearly to the reader. It’s a small detail with big importantance.

Joshua Adams is a writer and journalist from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @journojoshua

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