Journalism for dummies – the passive voice

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.

How The Mercury covers violence against women

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?

40 responses to “Journalism for dummies – the passive voice

  1. Now this is why I love you, NWN – use their words to string them up. Practical criticism is a skill that we learn at school and one that everyone should apply when reading print media. I am going to stick this article to my fridge and in time direct my children to read it.

  2. Wow, I didn’t realize this at all when I first read about this story. I’ve only just found out that Sammi was my little sister’s student teacher, which lead me here through some rapid gooogle searching.

    I didn’t know the media was doing this sort of stuff and I was so oblivious to it, I guess it’s because I’m an ignorant teenager.

    Anyways,
    Thanks for enlightening me.

    • Andreas Souvleris, welcome to the News with Nipples. This is why it’s so insidious and why we (journalists) shouldn’t be doing it.

      And by the way, you’re not an ignorant teenager. The news media is such a massive part of our lives that most of it tends to just wash over us.

  3. Rhiannon Saxon

    I have shared this on FB and one of my friends said, ‘Pointed out a few things I hadn’t consciously noticed’.
    That is what you are so good at, NWN!
    Thanks!

    • Why thank you Rhiannon Saxon. I got a text message from a journo friend saying the same thing and that’s the whole point of this blog – there’s no point us all agreeing with each other if journos don’t read it too and start to think about what they do.

  4. Great post, this is something I never thought about, though I have been bothered a lot with the victim is to blame strategies we see so much in crime reporting, especially when women are concerned. Will be sharing in Sunday Surf

  5. NWN, I think it’s ironic that you’re critiquing this news story written about a girl who was herself a journalism student. I know you’re just using this as an example of bad press and what not but keep in mind Sammi and Kuol were real people with families and people who care about them. I say this as someone who knew Sammi and although it might not be the best written piece of information it does offer a lot of insight as to what happened. This is a very raw and recent event where people close to her are still unsure as to what happened. I’m not trying to slander you but keep in mind this link will pop up in search engines (how I came across it) and may not be the best piece of material to be writing about so soon.

    • Allie, welcome to the News with Nipples. That’s fair criticism and I take it. This post is about pointing out how damaging it is for the news media to cover violence against women the way they do, and how they have done the wrong thing when covering this story. It’s not a grammar lesson using Sammi and Kuol as an example. I started by explaining the passive voice and why it shouldn’t be used so that there can be no doubt that the news reporting of this story is offensive.

  6. NWN thank you so much for writing this article. I am Sammi’s cousin and I was devastated and appalled when I read the “Sudanese Community Shocked” article. How dare they say he was a kind and loving person who loved Sam. You don’t stab someone to death if you love them, and I don’t believe that stabbing someone to death is the act 0f a good or kind person. Another article said that he was person who would never tolerate violence. Was that unless he was the perpetrator of the violence? Yes Sam was a beautiful model, but she was also a good person with a mother, father, sister and brother. Not to mention a loving extended family and I believe that was far more special and important about her than her looks. She was brutally and unnecessarily MURDERED by a violent and cowardly man who hopefully is stewing in hell right about now.

    • Erin, I know there isn’t anything I can say that will make your pain any easier to bear. It sounds like you are part of a loving family, and that will give you all strength, together.

  7. I knew Sammi personally, and it made my blood boil when I read the reports, and the “tragic” story of the “killer”… Poor Sammi lost her life in the most brutal and horrid way, and if he had not killed himself, he’s be branded a murderer, not as the various reports suggest a “tortured soul”.

  8. I want to say thank you for what is the best article I have read about this tragedy. Like other people who have commented on here I to knew Sammi and the way the media portrayed what really is a horrific act of cowardly violence made me cringe. This tragic loss of life has been hard hitting for lots of people who knew her and the bottom line is there is no excuse for what he did. What has been written has been poor and tasteless commentary. Conclusions of love, depression and racism do not take away from the fact that as written in this article he is a murderer. I know personally no tears will be shed by me about a selfish coward who is being glorified as the a poor victm himself. Sammi was the victim and I think the only thing we can reflect on is that heaven wherever that may is now blessed with a new vibrant and extraordinary angel.

    • Anon, I wish there was something I could say that would make things better, easier, for you and so many others who are grieving. You have all said so many lovely things about Sammi that I know you’ll do something special in her memory.

  9. This is so typical of the crappy way violence against women is reported… but grammatically speaking, it’s not passive voice, and neither are most of the examples in Anna Greer’s article, though the bit you quote from the ABC is (“was stabbed to death”).

    What The Mercury has done in that first sentence is that they’ve started with the victim, as the subject of the active verb in the sentence’s main clause (“A PROMISING Tasmanian model and university student fought“), which leads on to an active subordinate clause with the ex-boyfriend as the object (“to fend off her ex-boyfriend”), and then another pair of active subordinate clauses linked by “and”, with the pronoun “he” as the subject (“before he fatally stabbed her and took his own life”).

    All those verbs are active (passive would be “A promising Tasmanian model and university student was fatally stabbed [by her ex-boyfriend]…”). The way the murderer is being de-emphasised is by putting him into a subordinate clause later in the sentence, not by doing anything with the passive voice. Your clause “A WOMAN HAS BEEN STABBED TO DEATH” is actually in the passive voice, yet nobody would say you were avoiding the fact (though you don’t mention the murderer).

    The only passive verbs I can find in the story are: “several items broken”, “Ms Hewitt was found on the floor “, “[a knife] which was found”, and “counselling was being provided”. I suppose you could argue that “suffer” is a verb with passive meaning, but it is still in the active voice.

    You’re right that the way this story is written is making Ms Hewitt look like an active participant in a fight rather than the victim of a murder, but that’s because it’s written in the active voice!

    Passive voice is actually a really good tool for showing who you care about in a given situation. Consider the difference between “A car ran over my cat” (active) and “My cat was run over by a car” (passive): the second is more natural, because we care more about the cat than the car, and it doesn’t hide what’s responsible for the injury, though it does de-emphasise it.

    The only problem with the passive voice is that it gives you the option of hiding the “doer” of the action (e.g. “My cat was run over”… by a car, a train, a bike, a tractor – what?), which the active voice doesn’t. But as The Mercury‘s story shows, it’s possible to de-emphasise the doer nearly as much even without using the passive voice.

    The blog Language Log has a really good series of articles discussing how people think “the passive voice” just means “obfuscating language” rather than having a specific meaning. See here for an attempt at an explanation and lots of examples.

    • Lisa A, I stand corrected. I was taught that reporting a story like this was using the passive voice.

      Welcome to the News with Nipples, by the way.

      *scurries off to learn about grammar*

      • Thank you for the welcome, and for not minding my correction. I’m a Latin teacher and have just been doing the passive voice with my students, so I’m sort of in the zone for this!

        It’s depressing how many ways people can find to imply that the victim is to blame, isn’t it? I quite often find myself unconsciously tensing up before clicking on a headline, because I suspect it’ll be awful, and it’s sadly rare that I’m wrong.

        • A Latin teacher, eh? That’s very cool. I did Latin in years 7 and 8 and really enjoyed it. It was a shame I changed schools and couldn’t do it anymore.

          I actually know stuff-all about grammar because it was out of fashion when I was at school. It makes it difficult to learn languages because you have to get the vocab and the rules into your head at the same time, rather than just slotting the new words into the existing structure. So, thank you for your help with this.

          There are some days when I look at the news sites and all the stories are about women getting raped and assaulted and killed, and I wonder if there’s some great conspiracy to make sure women are aware that our lives are fragile?

  10. I never gave the passive voice much though. Oh man… I’m going to be noticing it all over the place, aren’t I? And it’s going to make me mad, isn’t it?

  11. Thankyou for this. Like Ben I also knew Sammi personally and this article truly points out what twisted snakes the media are. I too disagree with the main point of the story being her looks. She was so much more than that. She will always stay with those she touched. The way this has been reported is such a distorted portrayal of the events.

  12. Well, News, there is nothing I can really say that hasn’t already been said.
    But that’s never stopped me.

    As the others have said, just brilliant. It worries me that there seem to be two options here:

    1: Reporters are unaware of the impact of their chosen words – of how they can harm society and how they send certain messages. Even worse, to those who are less aware than people like you (and that’s most people) those messages are subliminal (of sorts).

    2: They are aware of the power of their words.

    I am not sure which is worse.

    I’ll be one of the first to admit that it is a fine line that separates us all from complete breakdown, in which we might do the most horrendous of things. But so what? That does not change the fact, the brutality of the acts committed by this offender.

    I’d also like to thank you for the reminder. The reminder for me to take care with my language – to remain vigilant, always mindful of what I am saying and what it could mean. Contrary to those who would rant about “PC gone mad, too scared to say anything”, I’d say this is a case of focusing on the needs of others before oneself, and actually enjoying the richness of the language.

    Much love as always.

    Gravey

    • Thanks Gravey Dice. It’s not about being PC with language, it’s about using the right words to convey your message. I think journalists are pretty lazy about language – they all frame stories the same way. Stories about sexual violence against women always start “A woman was raped” and never “A man raped”. Stories about the separatist insurgency in southern Thailand always include the words “Thailand’s restive south” in the first sentence. Who uses the word “restive” in general conversation? (And who uses the words “separatist insurgency”?). Likewise, if you’re telling a friend about someone disagreeing with someone else, you don’t say “slammed”, yet journos use it again and again and again. The only time non-journalists use the word is when they’re talking about physical action or tequila shots.

  13. great piece, NWN. I write about domestic violence and violence against women (including a current project on DV in Tasmania) quite a bit for work and have never given the issue of how I phrase it much thought, so I will be revisiting this piece often. Thanks and condolences to Sammi’s family.

  14. I have just been introduced to NWN by my strong willed, independent,confident, intelligent, kind, free thinking, beautiful daughter. I am 51 and she 28, and she has lifted the smog from my mind about how insidious and all consuming the erosion of the worth of women is. I feel like I have spent my life walking around with my eyes closed! Fortunately, due to my own difficulties in life, I have taught, led, loved and encouraged her to be free spirited, open minded, and not afraid to speak her mind. How proud she makes me!! I finally GET it, and now it just makes me so mad!, but feeling less dumb about the reality of it all empowers me also. Keep up the good work, and I will pass on my light-bulb moments to girlfriends and male-friends.

  15. Umm… I totally agree with not making women the passive victims, or actively inducing violence against them…. But I wonder if ‘a man raped a woman’ instead of ‘a women was raped by a man’ is actually giving the importance to the man? I mean, I know that was sort of your point a bit, that men should be blamed when they are acting violently, but I don’t like when men are the only important players in a story, be it true or otherwise.

    Also….Is there other instances of this kind of devaluing of women or is it possible that journalists didn’t want to offend the Sudanese community? Which doesn’t make it right, at all. But does give some insight perhaps?

    • Hi Jayne, I see your point, but I think making the sentence about the rapist is important because it makes the crime something attached to the criminal, rather than the victim. Rape/domestic violence/sexual assault then become things that someone does and not things that just happen to women.

      Almost all crimes of sexual violence against women are reported like this. Which is strange because it goes against how we are taught to write. But the thing with journalists is they tend to all write news stories the same way and no one thinks about it.

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  17. excellent! I appreciate this article so much!

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