Verbal Energy

Mistakes made in the stories we are told

The passive voice has its place – but we should watch out when it shows up in the wrong place in news stories.

By

"No Bodies Found In Texas Home After Psychic Tip." Now how's that for an upbeat headline?

It ran over a story by The Associated Press in early June about the story that never was: the discovery of up to 30 dismembered bodies at a house out in the country some 70 miles outside Houston.

Except that there were no dead bodies. There was an investigation by the local sheriff's department, on the basis of a couple of phone calls from a self-described psychic. The officers found nothing.

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But somewhere between the launch of the investigation and the finding of nothing, the whole affair became an international media circus, involving CNN, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and others. The National Public Radio program "On the Media" led its deconstruction of the massacre-that-wasn't with an audio clip of an Australian newsreader intoning the grim "facts" of the case.

The story was not, alas, on its face implausible. But what seems to have happened here is that sheriff's department sources passed incomplete, and ultimately inaccurate, information to some local news outlets, after which it was repeated and retweeted and inflated as in the parlor game "telephone."

The nonstory illustrates the value of gatekeepers – even as the premature release of "hot" news via social media undercuts the idea that all parts of a media company hew to the same journalistic standards.

The episode illustrates the echo-chamber effect of today's media. And it demonstrates that, although some stories are so vitally urgent as to be worth getting out even in imperfect form, others benefit from some good old-fashioned fact-checking.

But three words that stuck in my ear after I heard the "On the Media" report were "We are told."

Note the passive voice. Not "We have learned" or "An investigation by our reporters has found."

The "we are told" construction can be the sign of a news organization at the mercy of sources motivated by other interests than the public's right to know. "Deep background" sources often do get it right. But there's a world of difference between an experienced reporter getting a quick fill from a trusted longtime source, on one hand, and someone within a network retweeting an internal news advisory that probably should have remained internal.

The Texas-massacre-that-mercifully-never-was appeared on my radar when I was reviewing an older post from Washington blogger David Alpert on the way that the news media report on automobile accidents.

His case study was a Washington Post article that began, "Four people ranging in age from 19 to 21 were killed early yesterday in Culpeper County, Va., when their car collided with a vehicle that was going the wrong way, Virginia State Police said."

The people are written of in the passive voice; the active verbs go to the motor vehicles. "I didn't know cars could drive themselves," Mr. Alpert mused. He went on, "[O]ur habit of dehumanizing the actions of cars tends to create assumptions that their actions are not actually someone's responsibility."

Among editorial curmudgeons, I'm a relative softie on the passive voice. It has its place. Especially in reporting on crime, accidents, and war, victims often need to come first.

But we need to be careful about the stories we are told – because sometimes mistakes are made.

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