Passive Voice Iraq War Reporting

Clausewitz famously said that war has its own grammar but not its own logic. NRO’s Michael Rubin believes war reporting could use better grammar:

All too often, reporters and politicians use the passive voice. Take British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett in yesterday’s USA Today: “”It’s widely argued now that the existence of the camp is as much a radicalizing and discrediting influence as it is a safeguard for security.” Well, who argues? A McClatchy story yesterday read, “Nearly 2,700 Iraqi civilians were killed in the city in September.” Well, who killed them? Baathist insurgents or Iranian-backed militias? If the public read that Iranian-backed militias killed nearly 2700 civilians, we might be less willing to reward their murderers. From today’s New York Times: “Most of the 500 municipal workers who have been killed here since 2005 have been trash collectors.” Again, someone did the killing. Why hide it? It’s important to know what we are up against.

TNR’s Isaac Chotiner lampoons this as “blaming the press” for the ills of the war but Rubin does no such thing. He argues, correctly, that

Journalists do not use the active voice because they do not know the subject of the action—in which case their editors should send them back to ask tough questions—or the editors wish to absolve the subjects for political reasons. Either way, it’s poor journalism and irresponsible punditry.

Granting that one of his three examples is a government official rather than a reporter, the passive voice is indeed often an attempt to make bold assertions based on damned little evidence (the classic “They say”) or an attempt to lump things not quite alike into the same category. It’s something we all do at least occasionally and should be more mindful of.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Media, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    Chostier adds: It’s safe to say most Americans know that Iraqi civilians are killed by insurgents and militias.

    Really? At a time when more Americans know the cast of Lost than the name of one Supreme Court justice?

  2. just me says:

    I am think we are in an era of lazy reporting. I think the drive to get it in the news, and the drive for sensationalism leaves fact checking in the dust. And the details of who is killing who is important.

  3. lunacy says:

    Using passive voice in this manner is nothing new. When I used to teach writing, it seemed to me that many kids thought passive voice sounded more academic. I reasoned that this grew from the use of passive voice in research writing. The researcher/writer never refers to himself. Rather they switch it completely around. The “subject” of the research is acted upon but the researcher makes all reference go something like, “The subject was exposed to…”. Now, all through academia the object becomes the subject and responsibility is hidden.

    FREQUENTLY, when students wanted to create a persuasive argument but didn’t want the reader to be sidetracked by the actors, he or she would employ this tactic. Of course, in these courses there are favorite topics. How many times do you suppose a student would write something like, “500 people were killed by hand guns within the last year.” I don’t think in these cases they were shifting blame from the killers as much as they were focusing the attention on those killed.

    Naturally, if these journalists learned proper usage and grammar, it’s likely they are knowingly doing exactly the same thing.

    But I can’t help but feel that our standards have shifted and that’s the real culprit here. Few professors I’ve run across, outside the Humanities department, use active voice in the natural course of their speaking and writing. It is more natural for them to mimic the academic writing they’ve become accustomed to.

  4. Anderson says:

    Compare to Bush’s pet device of “It is said that _____,” where “________” is some b.s. like “we shouldn’t eavesdrop on terrorists” or “it’s better to fight terrorists in the U.S. than in Iraq.” A few reporters are starting to call him on this, but not often.

  5. Mark says:

    it’s better to fight terrorists in the U.S. than in Iraq

    You sure that’s right, Anderson? It sounds like it should be reversed…

  6. Anderson says:

    Mark, that nonsense is supposed to be put in the mouths of Dems, so of course it’s backwards. I’m mocking the “flypaper” theory.

    Dan Froomkin follows this straw-man maneuver almost obsessively, and his column will give you actual examples. (If I were a conservative, I would make a point of reading Froomkin, to pick up what I wouldn’t hear otherwise … much as, being a liberal, I read OTB.)