As you read news, be hyper-aware of passive voice headlines

The New York Times tweeted this over the weekend:

At this moment in time, there are hidden stories in the choices that headline writers write. An active voice headline tells who did what. Two of these headlines are passive. A passive voice headline tells what happened, but hides the who.

Minneapolis: A photographer was shot in the eye.

The headline is passive (“was shot”). Who shot her? Read the story and you see she isn’t sure. Linda Tirado “said the shot, which she thought was a rubber bullet, came from the direction of the police.”

But is the emphasis on the unknown origin of the projectile, or the people shooting? The active voice rewrite would read “Police apparently shoot photographer in they eye.” Is that accurate or incendiary?

Louisville: A reporter was hit by a pepper ball on live television by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her.

In this case, while headline is passive (“was hit”), it’s written to focus on the object of the sentence, the reporter, rather than the shooter. Active voice would read “An officer hit a reporter with a pepper ball on live television; the officer appeared to be aiming at her.”

Washington, D.C.: Protesters struck a journalist with his own microphone.

This is active voice — the protestors did the hitting. But why do protestors get called out in active voice while the police in the same story don’t?

Passive headlines are rampant in this moment

Here’s a selection that took 3 minutes to compile. In some cases the “to be” verb is missing, but understood — in all cases, the construction is passive. (You can check by adding “by zombies” after the verb.)

More than 60 million residents of U.S. cities have been placed under curfews

Four police officers shot in St. Louis

Decades-old Confederate statue removed from Alexandria intersection

Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church

L’Oréal Called Out

Headline writers have reasons to write this way. The main ones are (1) to save space, (2) to put emphasis on victims rather than perpetrators, and (3) they don’t know or can’t be sure who did what they’re describing.

But don’t be lulled into accepting this as a natural state of affairs. (Or, to rewrite in active voice, don’t let the headlines lull you into accepting this as a natural state of affairs.)

Become sensitive to passive voice in news articles.

Ask yourself, why did they write it this way? What is the passive voice hiding?

Especially when it comes to violence, somebody is always responsible for committing it. Someone is looting; we just may not know who. Police, national guard, or the military are shooting tear gas and rubber bullets — and it matters who did it. Protestors are shouting and screaming.

Once you become aware of the passive voice, you’ll never read news about violence the same way. So wake up.

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