Adventures In Passive Voice: Does The Media Think The Ferguson Fires Ignited Themselves?

David Benkof Contributor
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In reporting on the recent disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri, the media has consistently violated two widely accepted journalistic guidelines: to avoid the passive voice; and to identify the race of a criminal suspect when it’s relevant to the story.

While the passive voice is sometimes appropriate and even necessary in journalism, reporters generally choose active sentences as a way of providing greater detail, economizing words, and adding punch to their writing. But here are just a few examples of media coverage of Ferguson in the past few days:

USA Today:

“At least a dozen businesses were set ablaze and many others were looted after the grand jury’s decision was announced.”


“Several businesses and a row of cars at a car dealership have been set ablaze in the nearby city of Dellwood”; “CNN’s Sara Sidner was struck in the head with a rock as more rocks flew around her”; and “A Little Caesars pizza restaurant has been set ablaze as chaos continues to mount throughout Ferguson.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

“Windows were smashed at the McDonald’s and other businesses nearby. A Little Caesar’s pizzeria was also burned and looted.”

The passive voice fails to tell us who’s committing the violence. Does CNN think the rock threw itself at Sidner? Does the Post-Dispatch think the pizzeria set itself on fire? If they don’t tell us, we can’t know.

Keith Woods is an instructor at the Poynter Institute, a school dedicated to excellent, diverse journalism. Woods, who is African-American, teaches reporting on race relations, editing, persuasive writing, ethics and diversity.

He has written that one way to avoid what he calls the subject of race’s “unique obstacles” is to write in the active voice. Woods writes: “It seems almost human nature for journalists and their sources to favor the passive voice when speaking about things racial; particularly when talking about injustice. Thus, the white woman ‘was vilified’ or the Vietnamese child ‘was discriminated against.’ The active voice places the action where it belongs: with the actor.”

The other problem relates to reporting on the racial composition of the people engaging in violence in Ferguson. I’ve read more than 100 articles from major publications about the unrest, and found no references to the race, age, or sex of the vandals, looters, and arsonists.

Usually, the race of a criminal suspect is not newsworthy, so responsible journalistic outlets only mention it when it’s relevant to the story. Associated Press style delineates the two cases in which it’s relevant: when describing the appearance of an at-large suspect; and “when reporting a demonstration or disturbance involving race or such issues as civil rights or slavery.”

Does anyone seriously think race is unrelated to the protests, including the violent ones, over the grand jury’s lack of indictment in the Darren Wilson case?

Some possible objections:

“Isn’t it obvious?” No. A St. Louis friend told me many whites have participated in the protests. Is he right? I have no idea. I would usually try to find out by seeing what journalists are saying, but in this case, I have come up empty.

“Is it newsworthy?” Absolutely. Imagine if half the protesters were white. That would completely change the narrative about the Ferguson story, race relations in St. Louis, and the nature of racial coalitions. It would mean millions of Americans have swallowed inaccurate stereotypes about the protests. But if readers get no information about the race of the people in the center of a race-related controversy, they can only speculate based on their imaginations and prejudices. Journalists exist precisely so that does not happen.

“Aren’t you just feeding into racism?” I don’t think the media should report the race of a criminal suspect in a race-related case because it will reinforce racism. I think it should do so because it’s news. In fact, ignoring the race of key actors in news articles about a racially charged event is itself a form of bias.

The recent spate of questionable reporting and writing regarding Ferguson shouldn’t be surprising. Race relations in America is a fraught subject that people understandably prefer to avoid or finesse. But journalism standards exist precisely to guide reporters and editors in tricky situations. Our democracy depends on a vigorous press to help society make informed decisions.

Further, when the press papers over the race of whatever percentage of the protesters expressing their rage are black men, they are contributing to the very invisibility and powerlessness behind some of the frustration in Ferguson. In other words, an African-American might think, “Wow. Black people can’t even get noticed when I throw stones and burn down buildings.”

If journalists are cowed from even saying who’s responsible for acts of violence, the people can only move forward blindly on racial issues – something that, sadly, we’ve already been doing for centuries.

David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis and a frequent contributor to the Daily Caller. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him atDavidBenkof@gmail.com.