Active / Passive
Have we fallen prey to a simple feature of middle school English grammar that dominates the way we consume our news today?
News. Merriam-Webster defines it as 'a report of recent events'. Let's take this a step further. The verb form of the word 'report' is defined as 'to give an account of'. Well, I could keep going on and dissect every little word but would fail to defend the circus that is presented to us as 'news' in this day and age. Television and print media are equally complicit and headlines ending with question marks enrage me as much as politically affiliated news anchors flailing their arms about, shouting at the top of their voices, banging fists, and pointing fingers on a primetime show watched by millions across the nation that needs to know.
Okay then! I am done ranting about how news today is politically biased one way or the other, supported by evidence as weak as a kitten, and generally presented in a way that it creates more news itself; with the important events, facts and figures buried deep amidst the resulting dust caused by the collective outrage of the vast population of this mighty country.
Let's zoom out a little now. There's still a whole lot of news that's reported that's not opinionated or debated upon. This is news that isn't supposed to make you wonder about it way past your bedtime like a classic Christopher Nolan flick. Something mundane - like the weather, for example. Or something exciting - like the result of a closely contested cricket match. Or maybe, and you might want to pause here, news that talks about a heinous crime - like rape or murder.
So what is it? What's wrong? We read this news, talk about it at dinner, probably debate about it with colleagues at work, and then forget about it the next day. But hold on. I feel there's something fundamentally wrong about the way news is written today. And it goes back to the very basics of the English language - active and passive voice.
Let's take a simple example. A sentence in the active voice follows the 'Subject-Activity-Object' or 'Who does what' principle. Sentences in active voice would go something like this:
Heena baked some bread today.
Sagar wrote a poem.
Shankar made coffee in the morning.
You get the drift - the focus is on the subject and the action and not so much on the object that appears in the latter part of the sentence.
Let's convert these same sentences to passive voice, shall we?
Some bread was baked by Heena today
A poem was written by Sagar
Coffee was made in the morning by Shankar
Sounds weird, right? The focus is on the object actioned upon and the subject or the one performing the action goes almost unnoticed, especially with the increasingly shrinking attention span of us humans.
"Hey Amol, thank you for the Class 5 English lesson but I still don't get your point!"
Okay, let's jump straight to the point and apply what I just said to the news that we read every single day:
India wins the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup
SpaceX sends NASA astronauts into orbit
Amitabh Bachchan arranges charter flights to send UP migrants home
PM Modi launches technology platform 'Champions' to empower MSMEs
Do you see a pattern? All active voice, yes? Good, you have learnt well. But there's something else that's common among all these headlines, which, by the way, are actual, published news headlines. They all talk about a positive action which needs the subject to be highlighted, put up on a pedestal for the world to see and applaud.
These are the words in focus. Heck, I'm sure half of you didn't even read till the end of the last headline.
Now let's take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum - news reports around crime and tragic events:
Woman gang-raped, singed with cigarette in front of 5-year-old son in Kerala
Athens woman injured in possible acid attack
Elderly couple found murdered in rented home; police suspect son's role in crime
Do you see a pattern? Passive voice, yes? Hold on to that thought. I have one last example for you.
"George Floyd: Black man dies after US police pin him to ground" - This was the Al Jazeera headline on May 27, reporting the police brutality that caused the death of George Floyd.
Read the headline again - carefully, this time. It does not say 'Police officer kills George Floyd'. And I ask why? Does this not have more impact? Does this headline not send shivers down your spine that the very authorities that have sworn to protect law and order around you are now murdering innocent citizens? Does this not put the onus on 'Police Officer - Murderer' as opposed to the actual headline which was probably focused on 'Citizen - Murdered'?
Sit back and think. It is never 'Man rapes woman'; it is always 'Woman raped'. By whom? Why can't the entity committing the horrible crime be named and shamed? The way the headline is written almost puts the blame on the victim. And that's what the fight is about.
Headlines like these start conversations dripping with disgusting patriarchy like "oh, she must have been drunk, was inappropriately dressed and was asking for it." But if you read something like 'Man rapes woman', I'm pretty sure there'll be very few who will even think of victim-blaming, let alone defend the act. 'Police officer kills innocent citizen' - how in your right mind do you defend that?
And that's what needs to change. News headlines may not be boring anymore - use your puns and interjections as much as you want. But don't sensationalize it at the cost of what actually needs to be said, like it needs to be said. People form an opinion reading the news and they voice it pretty strongly too. News that starts ambiguous conversations is only going to lead to disharmony in society. And that's not a society we would want to live in.
So news folks, pull up your socks! Change the way you say things and maybe, people will start seeing the world differently and hopefully, more accurately. Will surely help make the world a better place to live in. Peace!
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