How bureaucratic language strangles journalism's accountability

Dissidents “were executed.” Bodies “were later found.” The man was killed in an “officer-involved shooting.”

All of these phrases are what writer Colin Dickey would call prime examples of the “bureaucratic voice.” The “bureaucratic voice,” he says “makes use of both active and passive constructions, but its purpose is uniform: to erase and efface any active agent on the part of the bureaucracy.”

In an essay for Longreads in response to last month’s United flight incident, Dickey details numerous examples of the “bureaucratic voice” in communication from corporations and governments, as well as from journalists.

Related Training: It's All About the Voice: How to Make Your Writing Sing

Take, for instance, the phrase “officer-involved shooting.” There are hundreds of thousands of examples of the phrase used in headlines and ledes by news organizations — and Dickey calls the phrase a perfect example of the bureaucratic voice. He writes:

“It invariably is paired with an active verb ('an officer-involved shooting occurred') and yet the entire purpose of the construction is to imbue the scene with passivity. Police did not kill anyone; a shooting just occurred and it happened to involve officers.”

That kind of language, he writes, is an “egregious failure…[indicating] the degree to which American journalism is compromised by bureaucratic style.”

It removes the actors from their actions, thereby obscuring attributions of responsibility and leaving the reader with little information about cause and effect. These absences are particularly problematic when it comes to reporting on complex political and social issues. If one of the roles of journalism is to promote accountability, then our reporting must not shield responsible actors through our syntactic structure.

I reached out to Dickey, and we chatted about the role of language in objective journalism and how these constructions affect the end reader. Our conversation is below.

How did you get the idea to write about this ‘bureaucratic voice’ that you started noticing?

George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" remains a truly important essay to me, and particularly the way in which he talks about how language is used not only to rationalize violence, but is itself a form of violence.

I've been interested in this term, "officer-involved shooting" for quite some time — it's such an awkward, strange phrase, and yet it's so ubiquitous, and its use seems to have increased in the past few years. I began noting its usage a few years ago, and it seemed a particularly acute version of what Orwell writes about — not only is it sloppy, tortured grammar, but it works to hide a certain kind of violence in a particularly obvious kind of way.

It dissolves all agency. There's no one doing anything in an "officer-involved shooting."

Exactly! The email by United's CEO was yet another example of this that leapt out at me: it was so deliberate in its attempt to use language to color the events that took place on the plane, and particularly with the passive voice to make it sound as though United's policies and employees didn't do anything, and were merely reacting to this "out of control" passenger.

You call Munoz’s first response to the situation a “perfect example of the bureaucratic voice,” noting, “The bureaucratic voice makes use of both active and passive constructions, but its purpose is uniform: to erase and efface any active agent on the part of the bureaucracy.” I’m curious about what kind of effect this dissolving of agency might have on the end reader.

I think it works, you could say, passively on the reader, so that s/he is allowed to think that the victim did all the work, and was in some sense asking for it. The goal of the bureaucratic voice is to diminish the sense that any one person is actually making the choices that lead to harm and disenfranchisement.

If there's literally no subject in a sentence, just this passively constructed sentence in which the victim is the only named individual, then the mind has to work to decipher the syntax and find the bureaucratic actors.

In preparation for this interview, I read this academic journal article from the 70s on "newsmen's notions of objectivity." So much of what we learn in journalism is to be objective, but what is objective is often written in a type of “bureaucratic voice.” It assigns no blame to any one individual.

Right; I think we have a stylistic tendency towards erasing actors in a lot of ways. Partly this is because sometimes the actors simply aren't known; in my previous sentence, even, I used "we," but that's problematic because, who is the we?

Writers don't often have all the facts to properly name the actors, and so in that sense a passive construction has its uses. If it's unclear in a news story who killed whom, for example, then the passive voice might be appropriate. But "officer-involved shooting" crosses this line, because we know, in each case that it's used, that the police is the one who did the shooting.

And it's such a weird phrase, because to say, "a police officer shot a civilian" doesn't necessarily mean that officer was in the wrong; clearly labeling what happened doesn't have to assign culpability. But I think law enforcement is so eager to present themselves as above recrimination, that they can't even bring themselves to state the obvious.

Which, again, is their prerogative. But it's dismaying when journalists adopt this language themselves, internalizing it.

Partly, I think journalists end up avoiding assigning blame because it's the easy route, and one of the things about bureaucracy is it presents the most advantageous position as the easy route, and encourages a certain degree of laziness.

After I read your article, I started to see examples of that kind of “bureaucratic language” all the time, even when the actors are known....perhaps the best example of this that I can think of recently is from Oscars night during the envelope snafu. Another one is from this public editor column looking at how The New York Times mistakenly reported news about Hillary's emails being investigated by the Justice Department. I’m sure there are plenty of others if I were to go digging.

Yes, it's odd — once you start looking for it you do tend to see it everywhere, because it's more expedient. I suppose there's some degree of caution when it comes to possible libel suits, but in many cases it's gone far past prudence to become a stylistic tic.

It makes sense that a corporation like United would adopt this language, and, as mentioned, ditto with law enforcement. The way that journalists — and regular citizens — have begun adopting it wholesale seems to mark another way in which corporate speak is infiltrating everyday life, perhaps.

We think of the infiltration of corporate speak into everyday life in terms of jargon and nonsense phrases. But it also works with regards to syntax as well.

That's certainly true with the way we tend to report on large technology companies. I keep thinking of Facebook declaring itself "not a media company" last August (which they have since somewhat conceded) but then inventing the term ‘News Feed,’ which is used verbatim by news organizations in every article about Facebook’s feed.

Right. Bureaucratic speech often develops as a means of expediency and shortcuts (think of acronyms professionals in the same field will use that are incomprehensible to those outside the field), or as branding (per your example, "News Feed"). But journalists and others on the outside have some kind of responsibility, I think, to resist this, or at least to think clearly about which jargon they're adopting and why.

I wonder if they could explain when terms are invented by a company or jargon-y to their reader. I don't know if you've read the Lemony Snicket books. But when there's a hard SAT word, it's defined within the sentence.

Yes — that's one of the things I love about those books!

It's worth noting, though, that most of us are smarter than this. I think of the word "Google," and how quickly it became a verb, because it defined an action we didn't really have a verb for before. But then Microsoft specifically chose "Bing" for their search engine because they wanted a thing that could become a verb, and it never caught on.

So we are capable of pushing back, or at least ignoring, some attempts by corporations to alter our linguistic and thought patterns.

It's another reason why "officer-involved shooting" (sorry to keep returning to this phrase!) is so dismaying – there's no reason whatsoever for journalists to adopt it, and yet many of them have.

What do you suggest reporters do to check themselves and make sure they're not using phrases like that? I'm not sure in many cases it's intentional. I see all kinds of updates to articles on newsdiffs, and usually it's because the piece is copy edited or because new information comes in, or because the reporter was trying to turn something around on a tight deadline. It's rare to have something as egregious as the beef stroganoff correction.

Honestly, in many cases I think you can catch yourself just by writing like a normal human being. If you find yourself writing strange, tortured syntax, it's worth asking yourself why, and if it's because you either lack some crucial piece of information that's making the sentence difficult to parse, or are unintentionally shaping the reader's perception by withholding or distorting information.

I also think, as a blanket rule, adopting the passive voice should give the writer pause — it's not that there aren't good reasons for it, but it's worth stopping and ensuring that it's worth using.

And maybe you should tell them what information you don't yet have. The Times has started doing a "What we know/what we don't know" feature during breaking news, which I really like.

Right, exactly.

If information is missing, readers will often fill in the gaps themselves — it's human nature. So if you don't have everything, you might want to indicate that, to keep readers from drawing unnecessary conclusions.

And it's also important, I think, to let the reader know when something has been updated. The changes on newsdiffs aren't always reflected in the article as being "updated."

Sure — it seems possible, these days, to archive the old version somewhere that wouldn't necessarily come up in a search but still be accessible to a curious reader, so they could track these changes themselves.

  • Profile picture for user Melody Kramer

    Melody Kramer

    Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.

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