Please excuse us while we interrupt our normal punditry for a quick lesson in grammar.
Consider the following sentences: 1) “Tom kicked Bill”; 2) “Bill was kicked by Tom.”
Both communicate the same information, but one sentence does it more efficiently and creates a better picture in the reader’s mind through the use of an action verb — also known as the active voice.
Good writers employ active voice whenever possible. Writers of every age and skill level can improve their prose by rethinking every passive sentence.
Thus, “His appointment was rescheduled” becomes “The dentist rescheduled his appointment.” Or, “He was stunned by the fury of the lion’s attack” becomes “The lion’s furious attack stunned him.”
You get the idea. Direct writing puts the subject first, then the verb, then the object receiving the action. In most instances, writers should use active verbs.
So why do media reporters so often use phrases along the lines of “She was the victim of sexual assault”?
A letter writer posed that question last week, stating: “Instead of treating women like passive statistics (women ‘were’ assaulted), we should hear how many men did these things to women, and how many men were prosecuted for their behavior. These women were not assaulted by statistics — they were raped by men.”
We see truth in that statement, which probably should have ended with the phrase “men raped them” instead of “they were raped by men.” For every victim, there is indeed a perpetrator, and passive-voice writing about the victim seems to leave the criminal out of the picture.
Sometimes, the need for accuracy and fairness trumps prose style. Journalists often sacrifice brevity and artistic flair for the sake of clarity. And, yes, sometimes we must use language that creates intentional vagueness when readers would prefer black-and-white absolutes.
For example, if three women report sexual assaults in one week, we can’t report, “Three men sexually assaulted three women.” It might have been the same man. We can’t even say, “Three women were sexually assaulted,” until the police confirm that the assaults actually took place. For the sake of accuracy, our report must be along the lines of: “Three women told police they were sexually assaulted.”
If that’s all we can be sure of, that’s all we will report.
That same rationale applies to the policy of not identifying the suspect of a crime until he or she has been formally charged. And, once the prosecutor files charges, we refer to suspects as “defendants” or “the accused,” even if there’s no doubt they fired the fatal shots or were driving drunk in a tragic accident. We treat criminal suspects as innocent until proven guilty, even though it makes writing more cumbersome.
We do this because we still believe in the power of words — although at times it feels as if we’re fighting a losing battle.
For example, many of the political attack ads filling the air from both sides take an opponent’s words out of context and twist them into something contrary to what they had intended. By leaving out information and context, these ads invite viewers to leap to inaccurate conclusions.
A journalist’s goal is the opposite. We seek to present facts, and while we’d love to speak with certainty, more often than not the whole story takes time to reveal itself.
Sometimes, that means we must make the frustrating decision to be deliberately vague rather than risk being wrong.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE ROCHESTER POST-BULLETIN