The active and passive voices in news

Passive and active voice graphic by Anders Behrmann
Passive and active voice graphic by Anders Behrmann, Photo by Andrew Medhat on Unsplash

The best news stories are about action. You want to capture that in your writing and seize your audience’s attention. One of the ways is by choosing the active voice.

Strong verbs are the best words for suggesting action: run, leap, hit, accuse, rescue, build, explore, kick, ride, catch, etc. And verbs have two “voices”: the active and the passive.

In the active voice: I wrote this module.

In the passive voice: This module was written by me.

In the active voice, somebody is doing something. In the passive voice, something is being done.

They are both perfectly correct, grammatically, but the active voice is shorter, stronger and more direct. It works much better in news stories. There are exceptions, which we will come to later, but in the vast majority of cases, the active voice gives your story impact and vitality.

Here are two ways of writing the same story:

Passive voice: After several months of better trading conditions, the annual bonus to staff at the Fred Smith store group will be paid for the first time in four years.

Active voice: Staff at Fred Smith stores will get their first annual bonus in four years, after the group reported better trading conditions.

The active voice works better – it is less wordy and it puts the human interest angle first.

So the active voice is a basic part of a journalist’s toolkit. It is the default way of writing an interesting story. But the passive voice is not all bad! Sometimes it is the right choice.

“A lion has eaten Prince Charles” is much less effective than “Prince Charles has been eaten by a lion”.

This is because the overwhelmingly important subject of the story is Prince Charles, not the lion, and you want his name at the beginning of the story. The passive voice serves better in this case.

So the starting point for news writing is to favour the active voice – and to recognise the comparatively rare occasions when it will be better to use the passive.

But there is another reason to understand the use of the active and passive voices. They do not just affect style and impact, they can also affect meaning.

People in the public eye, particularly politicians, sometimes use the passive voice to obfuscate, confuse and mislead. 

The classic example is “mistakes were made”.  From the politicians’ point of view that is better than “I made mistakes” because it sets up uncertainty about what happened.

“I made mistakes and I’m sorry” is a very different statement from “mistakes were made and I regret them”.

In the latter case, the politician leaves open the possibility that the mistakes were made by someone else and his regret could easily be about someone else’s error. Because of the way he has phrased his statement, we cannot tell.

It is the skilful use of the passive voice to evade accountability.

Notice that when politicians describe their successes, they say “We took swift action to deal with the situation”. But when they talk about things that have gone wrong, they use words like “it was considered that…”, or “it was felt necessary….”, distancing themselves from the decision-making process through use of the passive voice.

I remember a philandering politician was asked at his latest wedding whether he would now be a faithful husband. He replied: “When a man marries his mistress, a vacancy is created.”

He was saying, in effect, that he would continue to have extra marital affairs – but in his choice of the passive voice, “a vacancy is created”, he was implying that some external force was creating the new opportunities for infidelity that he would no doubt later take up.

Again, the passive voice suggests the politician is an observer of what is happening, rather than the author of it.

So when you are quoting some public figure, make sure to point out any ambiguities created by his use of the passive voice.

You might want also to look at these thoughts on use of  the passive voice by David Poulson at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.