Don’t worry, this won’t be a lesson in grammar, I promise. It’s about how some – actually, many – journalists write in a way that blames the victim for the thing done to them.
It’s not a grammar crime to use the passive voice in reporting, but it’s highly discouraged because it makes for a weak and muddled intro, where the newsworthy thing is not actually the subject of the sentence. Like this story in The Mercury:
A PROMISING Tasmanian model and university student fought to fend off her ex-boyfriend before he fatally stabbed her and took his own life in suburban Hobart.
Did anyone notice there was a murderer in that sentence?
Consider this from the University of Toronto (one of the clearest explanations I could find):
In some sentences, passive voice can be perfectly acceptable. You might use it in the following cases:
1. The actor is unknown:
2. The actor is irrelevant:
3. You want to be vague about who is responsible:
4. You are talking about a general truth:
5. You want to emphasise the person or thing acted on.
From the first sentence of the story above, we know the woman who was murdered was a model, a uni student, and was in a relationship. What do we know about the murderer? That he was an “ex-boyfriend”. So, the passive voice is being used to “emphasise the person or thing acted on”. Why? Could it be, perhaps, because she’s a model? After all, we all know the MSM loves nothing more than being able to use a photo of an attractive woman. Or they “want to be vague about who is responsible”.
Now, here’s why it’s important: The passive voice is almost always used when reporting violence against women. So the person who committed the crime – usually, a man – disappears from the story. Violence becomes just something that happens to women, rather than something that violent people do to others.
In this excellent piece by Anna Greer for New Matilda a few years ago:
But removing the active participants from articles on abuse and harassment has important consequences for the overall meaning of the article… In the process, it used passive voice to shift blame from the perpetrators of sexual harassment and placed it squarely on the shoulders of the victims.
The use of passive voice… subconsciously shapes the way people view violence against women. It is an insidious and unquestioned practice. In the passive voice version… men apparently don’t harass and intimidate women, women just run around getting themselves harassed.
Now for the story itself. The Mercury calls it a “love fight“. Ooh, how harmless, just like a bruise. And “Love fight ends in tragedy” sounds like something bad happened to both of them together, rather than Kuol Piom stabbing Sammi Hewitt to death.
Focussing on her looks – a model, a student beauty – makes me very uncomfortable. If she wasn’t attractive, would they care? Probably not, which means this story is “main pic” newsworthy simply because of what she looks like. Everyone else ok with that?
When you click through to the story page, there’s a photo of Sammi Hewitt and a video of her. Kuol Piom – the murderer – has been removed from the crime.
And how distasteful is this: Sudanese community shocked:
TASMANIA’S Sudanese community is struggling to come to grips with the death of one of its own.
Sudanese executive committee member Owak Awak said the small community of about 1000 people was in absolute disbelief about Kuol Piom’s death.
Wait, I’m sorry. HE MURDERED SOMEONE and the story is about how much he’ll be missed? The fact that he killed someone isn’t even mentioned until the third paragraph.
Mr Awak said it was struggling even more to accept his cousin Mr Piom killed the woman he loved, Sammi Hewitt.
Oh, he loved her, so he had to kill her, how romantic.
ABC, now it’s your turn. Murder-suicide students named:
Tasmanian police have confirmed the names of two students who died in a murder-suicide in Hobart . Twenty-four-year-old journalism student Sammi Hewitt from the Huon Valley was stabbed to death by her 29-year-old boyfriend Kuol Piom.
That makes it sound like a suicide pact. Like they planned to end their lives together because they had so much love. Like Romeo and Juliet.
And again, lots of info about the murder victim, and the violence was just something that happened to her, rather than something he did.
And then the Police Inspector (Peter Powell – no relation, thank fuck) says this:
“Who knows what sparks these things on I guess when you’re in a relationship even the fear of losing the relationship sometimes tips people over the edge and who knows what else is going on in his life.”
Oh, so it’s ok to kill someone if you don’t want them to leave the relationship and if your life isn’t peachy keen. A WOMAN HAS BEEN STABBED TO DEATH AND THE POLICE INSPECTOR IS MAKING EXCUSES FOR THE MURDERER.
All of the stories say Sammi Hewitt and Kuol Piom had been arguing before he killed her. Why? We don’t do this with other crimes. All it does is provide excuses for what he did.
The other thing shitting me about this is that it’s irresponsible. The guidelines for the responsible reporting of suicide state you should avoid having the word ‘suicide’ in headlines, avoid presenting suicide as the solution to problems, and avoid putting the story in a prominent place in the newspaper/bulletin/website. So, triple fail, then.
You know, using the active voice and not being irresponsible with your reporting are pretty basic things. Journalism 101, if you will. If we, as journalists, can’t get them right, then how on earth are we going to be able to report on something as complex as putting a price on carbon?