June 2, 2020

A tweet from The New York Times about protests over the weekend attracted criticism for, of all things, its use of the passive voice.

The tweet links to this story that details arrests, harassment and attacks that targeted journalists covering the nationwide uprisings in response to the death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis last week.

It teases:

A quick refresher on active versus passive construction (or voice):

In the New York Times tweet, the Washington, D.C., incident uses active construction. The subject of the sentence, “Protesters,” performs the action described, “struck.”

The Minneapolis and Louisville incidents use passive construction. The sentence subjects, “photographer” and “reporter,” respectively, receive the action described, “was shot” and “was hit.”

The first words of a sentence naturally carry the sentence’s weight, so writers can use passive or active construction to place more weight on the receiver or performer of an action. Grammarians advise against passive construction — except in rare cases where it’s important to highlight the receiver rather than the actor.

What the passive voice says

Readers criticized the use of active construction in the tweet to highlight protesters’ violence but passive construction to downplay police aggression.

Look again: The Minneapolis line doesn’t name an aggressor. The Louisville line buries the actor, “an officer,” in the middle of the sentence, muffled by other details. The D.C. line, in contrast, leads with the actor — this time not police but “protesters.”

Replies to the tweet were quick to call out the inconsistency:

“Fascinating how it’s only the protestors who have agency,” wrote @meyevee.

“This is a great example of how to use the Passive Voice to control the narrative,” wrote @guillotineshout.

“does your style guide require that you reserve the passive voice for police actions or was that your choice?” wrote @jodiecongirl.

The tweet doesn’t mention two Atlanta incidents the story covers, which also use active voice when protesters are the actors and passive voice when police are the actors.

Neither the writer, Frances Robles, nor a New York Times social media editor responded to my request for comment on the tweet’s composition and intentions.

Maybe this tweet is an example of a pro-cop, anti-rebellion attitude at The New York Times, or at least of an unconscious bias. Most likely, instead, it’s one of endless reminders of the significant role of composition in journalism — especially as we publish content across digital platforms.

Why be passive?

The tweet lifts content from the story it promotes, repurposing it for the limited-character platform. That’s a common way to quickly craft social media posts to promote longer-form content.

The active or passive construction that conveys each incident in the tweet originates with the story. Details that don’t appear in the tweet might explain potential choices the writer (and editors) made while composing the article.

The Minneapolis incident is simple. The reporting appears unable to confirm what hit the photographer and who shot. A factual and active sentence would read something like, “Someone shot a photographer in the eye with something.”

But in Louisville, we know the actor — “an officer” — so why passive construction there?

MORE FROM POYNTER: When the passive voice is the better choice

The Louisville incident in the story reads, “A television reporter in Louisville, Ky., was hit by a pepper ball on live television by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her, causing her to exclaim on the air: ‘I’m getting shot! I’m getting shot!’”

A savvy writer intentionally ends that description with the quote for the greatest impact. Keeping that in place, I tried several ways to rewrite the sentence with active construction and preserve the myriad vital details. It becomes awkward, weak or unclear.

The D.C. incident in the story is active but leads with the location: “Outside the White House, protesters attacked a Fox News correspondent and his crew, taking the journalist’s microphone and striking him with it.”

The story’s dek — the synopsis that appears below a headline — summarizes the D.C. incident with passive construction that pulls focus from the protesters: “From a television crew assaulted by protesters to a photographer struck in the eye, journalists have found themselves targeted on the streets of America.”

Compose for the platform

The difference between active and passive voice in the New York Times article isn’t stark. Necessary context in the story also makes a reader less prone to assume bad intentions.

On Twitter, however, the lines appear one after another with sparse context. The difference is obvious, and it looks intentional. It’s not a huge leap for users on an inflammatory social platform to accuse the publication of bias.

Journalists are already aware of the impact of syntax in news reporting. We have to also be aware of how platforms affect that impact.

MORE FROM POYNTER: How bureaucratic language strangles journalism’s accountability

The New York Times tweet demonstrates how a change in medium can amplify otherwise subtle syntactic choices. The article is brief, and the tweet covers the gist of it. But simply shifting the content from the article into the context of the social platform significantly changes the impression it makes on a reader.

Too often, social media posts — and copy for other platforms, like search and email — are an afterthought foist upon editors to promote the main event: the article.

But the reader’s experience doesn’t revolve around the article, as the creator’s does. Many won’t go beyond the platform. We should craft content for external platforms as carefully as we compose stories for print or the website — including a second eye to catch unintended implications.

Dana Sitar has been writing and editing since 2011, covering personal finance, careers and digital media. Find her at danasitar.com or on Twitter at @danasitar.

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  • “A television reporter in Louisville, Ky., was hit by a pepper ball on live television by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her, causing her to exclaim on the air: ‘I’m getting shot! I’m getting shot!’”

    “A police officer in Louisville, Ky., appeared to aim his gun at a television reporter and shot her with a pepper ball on live television, causing her to exclaim on the air: ‘I’m getting shot!’”

    See, that wasn’t so hard. I didn’t change a word except the passive voice. This is no more “awkward, weak, or unclear” than the passive construction. In fact, it’s way less awkward and unclear, getting the proper agent and sequence of events in the right order. 1. Police officer, 2. Aiming at journalist 3. Shooting her 4. Causing her to react on live TV. The other one jumbled the events all out of order and obscures the agency of the cop. (Editorially, I would also change “appeared to aim” to “aimed,” since obviously if he shot the reporter, he aimed at her.)

    Please, don’t make excuses for the racism and explicit pro-cop bias of The New York Times. This is not “unconscious bias,” it is conscious prejudice clearly enacted in editorial policy.

    Check out this egregious false equivalence in the article: “ a number of journalists around the country who were attacked, arrested or otherwise harassed — sometimes by police and sometimes by protesters — during their coverage of the uprisings.” This is BS. Protestors can’t even arrest journalists. That was only cops. Adam Weinstein pointed out in The New Republic that cops injured over 100 journalists. I’ve seen nothing indicating that protestors are responsible for anything like this kind of brutality against journalists. It wouldn’t even be equivalent if the numbers were the same, because the police are ostensibly trained to “serve and protect.”

    Even referring to a Fox News TV crew as “journalists” and conflating their abuse with other attacks seems disingenuous. They are fascist propagandists. Goebbels wasn’t a journalist.

    • The passive construction in the Minneapolis case is not nearly as “simple” as Dana suggests, either. Sure, “Someone shot a photographer in the eye with something.” But unless you have reason to disbelieve the testimony of the journalist victim in the article, the shot came from the direction of the police. And unless you have reason to believe that there may have been protestor snipers somehow hidden among the police, this means one of the police shot her. If you want to be super careful, you could still say “Someone among the police shot a photographer in the eye with something.” The photographer hardly expresses doubt about who shot her, and the story includes a video tweet from a journalist in the scene explicitly accusing the police of shooting at journalists point blank with tear gas canisters. The non-denial denial of the lying police flak that Minneapolis cops don’t use rubber bullets hardly casts doubt on the journalists’ account. See how much confusion can be added to a story where little actually exists?

  • A great article about boring grammar! I am going to use this article as a teaching moment (i.e., the importance of verb selection (active/passive).

  • I would prefer the passive construction rather than misleading people into thinking DC police were the authority behind the teargassing. When we overemphasise how people react on social media we diminish the effectiveness of a tool that language gives us. Cast without fair. Apologise and correct when wrong; gently engage with the cretics when right.