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How the Media Uses The Passive Voice to Protect Guilty Cops and Soldiers.
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Long before I began covering politics, the first lesson I learned as a writer was the difference between the active and passive voice, and when to use each. At the time, I was working for a tech company, writing blogs and responding to customer service complaints. As my manager explained, properly using the active voice would make my content clearer and engage readers. Alternatively, the use of the passive voice could obscure facts, deflecting the anger of dissatisfied customers away from the software company.
The active voice is a way of structuring sentences so that the subject is performing the action. For example:
Sally kicked the ball down the field.
This is clear, concise, and at no point is the reader confused about what is happening. The passive voice is the opposite, putting the subject (Sally) after the action (kicked):
The ball was kicked down the field by Sally.
This sentence is longer, confusing, and the reader doesn’t know who kicked the ball until the very end, making it difficult to read. While the passive voice isn’t inherently bad (it can be quite poetic and has its uses in fiction), when it is used by a journalist, whose job is to inform readers what is happening, it becomes problematic. In this case, the use of the passive voice isn’t just poor writing; It’s outright deceptive.
The Passive Voice is The Police Voice
When used by media outlets, the passive voice is often a device to say what happened while obscuring who did it. This tactic is frequently used after police have shot someone. Take a look at the below tweet from the LAPD’s public relations department in January 2021.
Upon your first reading, you’re probably confused about what happened. That is because the LAPD is using the passive voice to obscure the facts and shift blame off its officers. Let’s break this down to see what they are really trying to say.
“The suspect produced an article that resembled a handgun” = The suspect took something out of his pocket and officers mistook it for a gun.
“At which time, an Officer-Involved Shooting occurred” = The cops shot him. (“Officer-Involved Shooting” is the Holy Grail of passive language.)
“The suspected was struck by gunfire” = The cops shot him.
“No officers were injured during the incident.” = The cops were unharmed.
If I were rewriting this tweet to be informative and not deceptive, it would read like this: “The suspect took something out of his pocket, which the officers mistook for a gun. They shot him. He’s at the hospital in stable condition, and the officers are fine.”
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The reason my version is clearer is that I’m using the active voice to describe what happened, while the LAPD’s version is confusing because they are using the passive voice to hide the fact that they shot an unarmed man.
While the above example came directly from a police public relations team, the mainstream media commonly uses the passive voice on their behalf. Here’s an example from The New York Times during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
Again, we can see how the passive voice is used to protect the malicious actions of the police. “A photographer was shot” doesn’t say who shot them. “A reporter was hit by a pepper ball… by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her” is a long-winded way of saying, “A Louisville police officer shot a reporter with a pepper ball while she was on live TV.” These are both examples of the NYT going above and beyond to protect the police. Interestingly, this tweet serves as proof that the media knows they are doing so, as they use the active voice to let their readers know that it was a protestor who struck a journalist. But in the case of police violence, they obscure (“an officer who appeared to be aiming at her.”) and omit key facts, such as who shot the photographer in Minneapolis.
This same use of the passive voice appears in mainstream media’s coverage of international affairs. Major news networks have covered the recent violence in Israel-Palestine, often with obscure language like this.
“A Blast Goes Off at Orthodox Church Campus” is a friendly way of saying someone bombed a church. “Israeli Defense Minister Tells Troops They Will See Gaza ‘From Within’” focuses the story on what one official said, not that the Israeli Army is preparing for a ground invasion of Gaza. This behavior isn’t new, as the media has long used the passive voice to hide Israeli atrocities. When an IDF sniper assassinated Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Forbes posted this now-deleted tweet.
“Hit in the head by a bullet” makes it sound like the bullet had agency and chose to kill Abu Akleh, as opposed to the Israeli soldier who shot her. According to her colleagues who were present, Abu Akleh was wearing a visible PRESS jacket, leading them to believe she was targeted. After years of denial from both the Israeli and American governments, the UN determined Abu Akleh was deliberately assassinated.
But the American media’s use of passive language isn’t limited to Israel. It is a courtesy extended to many militaries closely allied with the United States. Last year, The New York Times commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday massacre with a headline reading, “Gunfire by British soldiers unfolded…taking over a dozen lives.”
This phrasing puts the action on the “gunfire” (it “unfolded”) while making the British soldiers sound innocent. Additionally, “taking a dozen lives” is a dismissive way of saying “killed twelve people.” Rewriting this headline with the active voice makes it much clearer: “50 years ago today, British soldiers killed twelve protestors in the Bloody Sunday massacre.”
Similar cases have arisen in coverage of the Russia-Ukraine. The below headline centers “Nazi Symbols” and “patches” as the subject, making it sound like the Ukrainian soldiers wearing them are not responsible for the iconography they carry into battle.
As the mainstream media makes frequent use of the passive voice, one must ask why they choose to do so. After all, it is a choice. The New York Times and Forbes don’t hire bad writers. They’re some of the most prestigious media institutions on the planet, more than able to find employees who know the difference between the active and passive voice. The only logical conclusion is that they’re attempting to mislead their readers on purpose.
There are many factors that go into this decision. When it comes to police departments, the American military, and its allies such as Great Britain and Israel, journalists are incentivized to preserve relationships so they can get scoops and beat the competition. So, they soften their words and obscure the violence committed by cops and soldiers to keep their sources happy and their relationships with law enforcement and military officials intact.
But besides the requirements of market competition, there’s a more troubling explanation for the media’s use of confusing headlines. The American public is accustomed to a mainstream worldview, one in which the cops are faithful public servants who make occasional mistakes, and the American, British, and Israeli militaries are comprised of brave troops protecting us from The Bad Guys. Unfortunately, the media strongly dislikes having to report facts that contradict this narrative. If The New York Times reported, “LA Cop Shoots Unarmed Father of Three,” Americans would start to question if armed cops are the best form of public safety. If they were to write, “Israeli Snipers Assassinated Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh,” public support for Israel might quiver. And, if they made clear that there are open Nazis in the Ukrainian Army, Americans might think twice about the next taxpayer-funded weapons shipment.
The media’s use of the passive voice is nothing new, and it won’t end anytime soon. The next time you have to reread a headline two or three times for it to make sense, remember, that confusion you’re experiencing is the publisher’s goal. Dive deeper, and ask yourself: “What is the media trying to hide, and why?”
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What do you think about the media’s use of passive language? Were there any examples I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments.