Passive voice makes perpetrators disappear in news headlines

As a journalism educator I try to teach my students the mechanics of writing (apostrophes are for contractions and possessives; “principal” vs. “principle”; avoid the passive voice) as well as the fundamentals of journalism (seek the truth and report it; be the watchdog of democracy; hold power accountable). One common practice in modern journalism that combines bad grammar with bad reporting is the vanishing subject.

There are plenty of examples out there:

Who shot these suspects? The headlines don’t say. Perhaps readers will assume that police shot them, but in at least one case that’s not true. In all three of the above examples, passive voice is used to remove the subject of the sentence — the actor that is taking action against the suspect.

After Jeffrey Johnson shot Steven Ercolino at the Empire State Building on August 24, headlines from all over made the same mistake:

Everyone who saw these headlines probably (understandably) believed that it was another lone-gunman multiple-victim massacre like the Aurora movie theater shooting or Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage in Arizona. But the fact that police were actually responsible for the nine victims outside the New York landmark was (A) not a secret; (B) known to reporters at the time (see paragraph 8 of the CNN story); and (C) completely omitted from many headlines.

This is not the result of some type of conspiracy. The culprit is more likely to be a combination of lazy reporting and fear of offending sources (about which more below).

Aside from blatant use of the passive voice to make actors disappear, there are other ways to disclaim or mute responsibility for horrific acts committed by powerful people. For example, look at these two New York Times headlines:

What’s the difference? Look closely. Perhaps you noticed right away: in the first headline, the active voice is used to report a mass murder by a suicide bomber. In the second headline, the passive voice is used to cast doubt upon the death toll from a US drone strike. Note that it’s not “US drone strike kills 60 in Pakistan” … instead, the strike is “said to kill” 60 people. Who said it? According to the article, it was local residents and news reports. The cited source for the first article is “officials and medics.” What indication are we given that the latter sources are less reliable than the former? None. And yet the second headline waves away the facts of the matter. Oh, someone said that sixty people were killed. People can say anything, you know, especially when it comes to casting aspersions upon our great nation.

And yet several other news organizations had no problem reporting the drone strike in a more direct way:

Although they disagree on the final body count, there is no disagreement on culpability for the massacre, and no attempt at inserting weasel words like “alleged” or “said” to obfuscate that culpability.

Perhaps the media sources above are simply anti-American and too quick to believe the worst about the United States? Perhaps. But that still doesn’t explain the NY Times’ willingness to print the Yemen suicide bombing death toll as a fact and the Pakistan funeral bombing death toll as an allegation. What would very easily explain this discrepancy would be the Times’ unwillingness to alienate their official Pentagon and White House sources who have a vested interest in both maximizing fear of al-Qaeda in Yemen and minimizing civilian casualties and military atrocities in Pakistan.

This unwillingness to offend powerful sources was named years ago by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky as “sourcing,” the third filter of their propaganda model:

Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out that ‘Professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the PM’s official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general. What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate.’ (source)

Obviously police departments are also on that list of official sources, which explains very well why police who make enormously embarrassing mistakes often vanish from headlines, leaving only an object (the “suspect”) and the action that mysteriously happened (“shot” or “killed”) without any apparent cause. Journalists ought to be on guard against this phenomenon and write their stories–and headlines–accordingly.