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.