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.