I briefly dabbled in professional journalism earlier in my career, and took several courses in writing in college. The single most important stylistic lesson I learned was that the passive voice should be eschewed. (Yes, irony intended.)
The passive voice is the voice of weakness. It is the form used when one wishes to distance the actor from the action. The biggest example has to be the current hot phrase among politicians in trouble: “mistakes were made.”
It’s a subtle thing, but a significant distinction. As Meryl points out, the active voice is the more powerful, more accusatory, more direct form, while the passive voice is that of minimizing, of excusing, of downplaying. It’s a wonderful way of applying bias without being too flagrant; the two versions are defensible as equally true, yet the impact of the two versions is, as my old writing teacher used to quote, “the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”
Well, Meryl’s observation is still going strong. This morning’s Boston Globe features a Reuters dispatch from the Palestinian Territories that could not give clearer proof.
Gaza boy, 2, dies in clash of Hamas, Fatah forces
GAZA CITY — A Palestinian child was killed by gunfire in Gaza yesterday, medical officials said, as Fatah and Hamas fighters clashed in a second straight day of factional violence since the formation of a unity government.
Medical officials said the 2-year-old boy was killed and a female relative was wounded by gunfire as Hamas and Fatah gunmen clashed in northern Gaza. There was no comment from either side on the killing.
That bad, evil, naughty gunfire. It went off on its own and killed that little boy. It must have wandered away while the Hamas terrorists and the Fatah terrorists were duking it out nearby. How careless of them.
Let me rewrite that to balance the Reuters story out a bit:
Terrorists fight, kill baby in Northern Gaza
Terrorists from Fatah and Hamas — the governing parties of the Palestinian Authority — fought in northern Gaza yesterday, killing a two-year-old boy. The terrorists shot the boy and a female relative during the second day of open warfare after Hamas and Fatah formed a unified government, an agreement based on the principle of “let’s stop killing each other and go back to killing the Jews.”
Neither side would admit to killing the boy, and declined comment until they could find a way to blame his death on the Jews. At that point, they will give him a name, release cute photos of him, call him a martyr, and turn his funeral into a demonstration of Jew-hatred and cries of vengeance against the Zionists.
Yeah, it’s as biased as the Reuters version, but it has two advantages: First off, it’s a bit more open about its bias. Secondly, it’s far more accurate.