Writing in Passive Voice Shall Not Be Done By Journalists

Many of us look at the head line and first few sentences of a news article to gather just enough information to decide whether we want to continue reading it. So I was a bit peeved when I was greeted this morning with ambiguous headline and an impenetrable opening sentence in this article from New York Times:

Man Being Queried on Tsarnaev Ties Is Killed by Officer

BOSTON — A man in Orlando, Fla., who was being interviewed early Wednesday morning by an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a Massachusetts state policeman about his ties to the deceased Boston Marathon bombing suspect, was fatally shot after he tried to attack them with a knife, according to a senior law enforcement official.

Maybe it was because I was trying to read this at 7:30 a.m., but I had to read that sentence three times to figure out who did what to whom. I’m not exactly the world’s best writer, but I can think of a hundred other ways to write this opening to make a clear sense the first time reading it. New York Times generally writes great articles, but this was a disappointment. I didn’t even bother reading the rest.

Compare this to another article covering the same story. From Yahoo! News of all places:

FBI agent kills man after questioning him about Boston Marathon bombing

An unidentified FBI agent shot and killed a man in Orlando, Fla., early Wednesday after questioning him about his link to the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

Both the headline and the opening sentence makes clear who shot whom when. The reader might not get as much information out from this opening compared to the NY Times version. It didn’t say that there was a Massachusetts state policeman also present at the scene, that the deceased man tried to attack the officers, or that the information was according to an unnamed senior law enforcement official. But I would much rather sacrifice learning all of that in the opening sentence if I can easily understand the important facts from the outset. And what are the important facts, might you ask? I try to think of it in the medical/nursing terminology, “oriented x4.” Orient the reader as to the person, place, time, and situation. The Yahoo! article does that in the opening sentence; the NY Times article tries to do much more than that and fails miserably.

The NY Times article’s sins are multiplied by the poor use of passive voice and is marred by multiple parenthetical clauses. In a shooting, who is the actor? The shooter. So the very first word in the headline–“Man”–is poorly chosen. An unnamed man is not an attention grabber. “FBI agent” that opens the Yahoo! headline, on the other hand, is interesting–especially if it is followed by the shocking revelation that he “kills man.” NY Times could have redeemed itself if it went on to say “Man Killed…,” but it didn’t. It said “Man Being Queried.” Query is such a quaint little word that we don’t normally use in our everyday speech. Do we get excited about an unnamed man being questioned by law enforcement officials? Or do we care more about a man being shot by an FBI agent? According to NY Times, interrogation is more important than firing bullets. Its opening sentence follows the same flawed and frustrating roadmap as the headline.

Moral of the story? Tell a good story in a the outset of your writing. And the outset can be even as early as first couple of words. Don’t waste your reader’s attention.


A Reflection on Gratitude

[I am finally fulfilling my promise of reviving this blog.]

The idea for this blog post has been floating around in my head since the night of Wednesday, September 5, 2012. It was a late night at the office, and I finally decided that I had to leave the office to feed my cats. (I know, I’m beginning to sound like the crazy cat lady.) I got into my car, started the engine, and the radio came on to my usual station of NPR. (It’s not about the political leanings, folks. I just can’t stand commercials, pointless talk radio, or teenie-bopper music. Oh God, I sound like an old woman. I digress…) It was then I snapped out of my work-home-work-home routine and realized that we were in the middle of the Democratic National Convention that week. The speaker of that moment was Ms. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic nominee for the 2012 United States Senate election in Massachusetts. About half way through my very short commute home, Ms. Warren said the following:

It wasn’t always this way. Like a lot of you, I grew up in a family on the ragged edge of the middle class.… I was waiting tables at 13 and married at 19. I graduated from public schools and taught elementary school. I have a wonderful husband, two great children, and three beautiful grandchildren. And I’m grateful, down to my toes, for every opportunity that America gave me. This is a great country. I grew up in an America that invested in its kids and built a strong middle class; that allowed millions of children to rise from poverty and establish secure lives.”

One sentence out of her entire speech stuck out and really resonated with me–to the point that I could not and did not forget it until 2.5 weeks later today. (Granted, I did look up the transcript to get an accurate quotation…)

“I’m grateful, down to my toes, for every opportunity that America gave me.”

I didn’t know who Ms. Warren was, and, even now, I only know what little Wikipedia tells me about her (which suggests that we have a lot in common). This post isn’t about politics. I favor neither party, and I am an equal-opportunity offender of political extremists of any kind because I believe in collaboration and compromise (but that’s another blog post for the future). But what she said in that short sentence was what I have been feeling for the past few months. I, too, am grateful, down to my toes, for this amazing county that God has used to bless me with grace upon grace.

I am grateful that my parents had the foresight and the courage to leave behind the only world they knew for the first five decades of their lives to give me and my sisters an opportunity for better lives. I am grateful that, though they didn’t even know the words “American dream,” they knew that America is the land of opportunity for their children. I am grateful that America welcomes men and women of every tribe, tongue, and nation to write the new chapter of the great American story. I am grateful that America provided jobs for my parents who spoke very little English even though those jobs were hard on my parents’ bodies and paid not nearly enough. I am grateful for my incredibly hard-working parents who never took a day of vacation for themselves so that they can provide for my sisters and me.

I am grateful that American public education system has been very good to me. Public education gets a bad rap, but I’ve had the fortune of being blessed with wonderful teachers in Washoe County School District (WCSD) in Sparks, Nevada. If it weren’t for those talented teachers who took a great interest in my success, I would not be where I am today. I am especially indebted to Mrs. Varis (nee Murray) for instilling a love for science early on in my educational career. I am grateful for Mrs. Perrault for making English fun for me; it was in her class that I read my first book in English cover-to-cover all on my own. I am grateful for Mrs. Curley, who started a mock trial team at Sparks High School in my senior year. If it weren’t for her, my shy, introverted self back then would not have dreamed of joining a program where I’d be forced into a public speaking role. Little did I know that that I would fall in love with the idea of becoming a lawyer. I am grateful for Mr. Geyer, who inspired me to enter the Science Fair, and put me in touch with a professor at the University to be a mentor for my project. It was that professor, Dr. Fuerstenau, who planted the idea that perhaps, just may be, it is possible to become a lawyer without being a political science major. And, boy, was he right. There are countless other teachers at WCSD who deeply touched my life and changed me for the better. Some of the best years of my life were at WCSD. So, even when every last person in America knocks on public education for failing our children, I will beg to differ and tell them how thankful I am for all my public school teachers.

I am grateful that America provides public financing for college and ample opportunity for private scholarships–both merit- and need-based. My parents–despite all their efforts–could not possibly pay for my two older sisters’ and my college tuition. If it weren’t for Pell Grants, Nevada Millennium Scholarship, and all the other scholarships available through Mackay School of Mines (regardless of the name change, it will forever remain Mackay School of Mines for me) and College of Science, I could not have finished two bachelors degrees without any debt or burdening my parents. If it weren’t for Stafford Loans and research grant stipends, I could not have completed my masters degree with minimal debt. And though I often complain of the enormous debt that SMU Dedman School of Law has bestowed me, I could not have even dreamed of going to law school if it weren’t for Stafford and Grad PLUS Loans. I have not done enough research to weigh in on the debate of whether it is good or bad for the government to be in the education business. But one thing I do know for sure is that I am grateful for all the financial opportunity that America has provided for me so that I can pursue higher education to my heart’s content.

I am grateful that on July 18, 2011, this nation allowed me to call America “my country” by naturalizing me as a citizen. I am grateful for the opportunity, privilege, and the responsibility of voting. (Which reminds me, I need to register to vote. So should you, my friends, if you have not done so!) I am grateful that now I will have a say in shaping the future of this great nation even if it is only one voice.

But, most of all, I am grateful that coming to America translated to coming to Jesus for me and my family. To say that the going was tough for our family during the early days of living in America would be a gross understatement. It was then that God put us in touch with a community of believers who took us in and treated us like family. In hindsight, God uses the most difficult trials of our lives to draw us to Himself.

Is this an exhaustive list of all that I am grateful for? No. Such a list would take blog posts upon blog posts. I just listed a few that related to how I am grateful for the opportunities that America has given me. And I’m only 29 years old and have lived in America for a little short of 19 years. I can’t imagine what the future holds for me. Whatever may come, I’m just grateful to be an American.

Pro Se Negligence

Is it negligent to represent yourself in a court of law without any special training or legal knowledge? Just how much risk do you assume by appearing before a judge without a proper representation by a counsel? Which is more unreasonable: running up a legal bill or risking losing a suit altogether?

As a New York Times article points out, more and more people are representing themselves in court. Words like bankruptcy, repossession, eviction, and foreclosure have become staple vocabulary in evening news if not in our own daily lives.

I just got my first taste of appellate advocacy this week at school this week through the 1L moot court competition. Appearing before a panel of “fake” judges was nerve-wracking enough. And that is with at least good eight months of legal training and a month of intense preparation. I cannot imagine an average Joe or Jane having to appear before a real-life judge against a licensed attorney hired by the big, bad corporation.

The irony of it all is that the government (and ultimately the tax payers) foots the legal bill for those who defend themselves in a criminal proceeding but not for any civil suits. So those who may be guilty of bigger fault are afforded more help by the government.

At times like these, I wish I was already licensed to give legal counsel to those who cannot afford a lawyer. Alas… I must pass my classes (and eventually the bar exam) first.

One-upping Supreme Court Justices

What would you do if you found an error in a U.S. Supreme Court Justice’s reasoning? The men and woman (sadly a singular now) who are considered to be the residents of the highest ivory tower. The most brilliant legal minds in America. Those with the final say. Would it make your day, would it stroke your ego to find an error in their reasoning for one of their court decisions?

Well, I will never have such privilege, so you are going to have to ask Dwight Sullivan, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve who now works for the Air Force as a civilian defense lawyer handling death penalty appeals.

First, if you haven’t already, catch yourself up with my recent post regarding a Supreme Court decision on capital punishment for child rapists. Then read on.

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion stated that a child rapist could face the ultimate penalty in only six states — not in any of the 30 other states that have the death penalty, and not under the jurisdiction of the federal government either. However, Col. Sullivan pointed out that the Congress, in fact, revised the sex crimes section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 2006 to add child rape to the military death penalty.

The news broke out first on the New York Times on Tuesday. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice admitted that the government lawyers should have been aware of the new law and should have informed the Supreme Court. The parties to any U.S. Supreme Court cases can request reconsideration. It will be interesting if such request will be filed and, more importantly, granted.

Supreme Court bans death penalty for child rape

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court made a split 5-4 decision on Kennedy v. Louisiana that executions are too harsh a punishment for child rapist. (Citation: 554 U.S. ___; 128 S.Ct. 2641; 2008 U.S. LEXIS 5262; 2008 WL.)

It provokes one to think – what is an equitable punishment for a rapist who devastates and ruins a child’s life before she has had a chance to blossom? My apologies for the generalization of a female rape victim, but in this particular case, i.e. the Kennedy case, it indeed was a 8-year-old girl raped by her step-father. Justice Kennedy (in no relation to the petitioner) wrote in the majority opinion that “the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.” But what are the chances of the child leading a “normal” life past this traumatic experience? The girl was raped in March of 1998. The past ten years has assuredly been anything but normal for her.

Or consider the second Louisiana defendant, Richard Davis, who was given the death penalty in December for repeatedly raping a 5-year-old girl. As Justice Alito states in his dissenting opinion:
The Court today holds that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits the imposition of the death penalty for the crime of raping a child. This is so, according to the Court, no matter how young the child, no matter how many times the child is raped, no matter how many children the perpetrator rapes, no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how much physical or psychological trauma is inflicted, and no matter how heinous the perpetrator’s prior criminal record may be.It doesn’t make sense to me that child rapists – no matter the degree of their crime – are categorically exempt from capital punishment while espionage and other “crimes against the state” are punishable by death.

Five states — Louisiana Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and (my new home-to-be) Texas — permits death penalty for child rape (Georgia currently sits on the fence on this issue). This decision effectively limits the individual states’ ability to apply what their residents deem a fit penalty for the most heinous of crimes. I’m not advocating that all child rapists be put to death, but, in cases where the nature of the crime is so appalling and abominable, the jury and the judge should be given the choice to sentence executions.

I’m not at all a fan of capital punishment. All human life, even those of most detestable criminals, is sacred, and death penalties should not be given out lightly without the sincerest consideration. But I think on this decision, on which the Eight Amendment (the “cruel and unusual punishment” one) and state’s rights hang in fine balance, I would have to side with the more conservative justices. (As an aside, I generally do not agree with what Justices Scalia or Thomas say, but this case would be an exception.)

With both presidential candidates disagreeing with this decision, it will be interesting to see the impact of this case on future cases.