Propaganda School Part 2: The Passive Voice

Part of my interest in the increase in propaganda that has happened in the last decades is because I am just old enough to remember what the media was like before the internet came along and almost destroyed its business model. When I was university, I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist and did a couple of years of student journalism at the university radio station. Even though it was a student organisation, the work was taken very seriously because most of the students knew that they were creating a portfolio that would be crucial in securing them a job as a journalist later on. They were right. Several of the people I worked with at the station are now professional journalists in the Australian media.

One of the things we learned as student journalists was that good journalism is all about stories and stories rely on sources. The journalist’s job is to find the story and let the people involved tell it. Climbing through the hierarchy of journalism is in large part about getting access to better sources and better stories. As student journalists, we tried and failed to get interviews with certain members of Parliament or other high profile people but I did once get an interview with the well-known Greens politician, Bob Brown. His party, of course, relied on the student vote and so he was willing to talk to us. That’s how it goes. You start off at the bottom on a student radio station and, if you climb the ladder high enough, one day you might be interviewing the Prime Minister and dealing with stories of national importance.

Good journalists will always quote their sources where they can or at least state that the source must be kept secret. Entire movies and television shows have been made about the dramatic cases where the source must be kept anonymous for their own protection and how the journalist is pressured to betray their ideals to reveal the source. That’s how important sources are in journalism. Good journalists should also provide both sides of the story (this is actually a legal requirement in Australia) and so articles should usually contain at least two opposing views. For example, if there is something controversial happening in industrial relations, you get a quote from a union official and from a government official. That’s known as balanced journalism.

Journalists are supposed to report just the facts and the facts needed to be verifiable. Much like with a scientific paper, if you make a statement in your journalism piece, there should be a reference for it. In the rare case that you make a statement without a reference, you should state that it is opinion e.g.  ‘the ABC believes that…’.  

The point is clear: sources are important and good journalism should always state its sources.

That is where the passive voice comes into the equation because it’s a syntactic structure in the English language that explicitly hides the subject. Therefore, it can be used to make statements without being clear about who is making the statement. Here are some examples of sentences where the active voice is transformed into the passive:

“He believed the politician was lying” –> “It was believed the politician was lying”

“They discussed the matter” –> “The matter was discussed”

“The government passed the law” –> “The law was passed”

Syntactically, the writer who want to use the passive voice can add the subject of the sentence back as follows:

“The law was passed by the government.”

As educated readers of news and propaganda, we should be very suspicious whenever we see passive voice in a media article. As we will see shortly, the passive voice can be used to make claims that have no source and therefore are either distorting or even fabricating the news. Whenever we see the passive voice, we should always ask the question “by who/whom?” and make sure the article answers our question.

Before we get to today’s examples, there’s one other linguistic usage which, although not technically the passive voice, functions in the same way: the use of plural nouns.

One of the things we see a lot of these days in the media are phrases like “observers noted…”, “scientists agree…”, “experts say….”. We should be very suspicious of such plural nouns which denote amorphous, indefinite groups. A journalist is supposed to get a statement from a real expert or scientist. It takes time to do that. Maybe the journalist will have to contact half a dozen scientists before they find one who is willing and able to be interviewed. But that is the job of a journalist. That is why they get paid. Simply stating “scientists say” is at best lazy journalism and at worst propaganda.

With all that in mind, let’s have a look at an article liberally peppered with both plural nouns and the passive voice. This one from the RT.

The headline reads:  

‘MaidenGate’: Twitter warriors allege US election fraud committed by hijacking of changed names…others label claim a ‘conspiracy’

We have two plural nouns in the headline alone. It’s a battle between twitter warriors and others. What exactly is a twitter warrior? And who on earth are others?

Things don’t get much more concrete in the first sentence of the article where we hear that ‘tens of thousands of people have reacted’ and ‘some believe’.

Later, there is a formal example of the passive voice in the phrase ‘the hashtag #MaidenGate was launched late on Monday’. Launched by who exactly?

Of course, this is just a very silly article that is nothing more than a report about what happened on twitter on a Monday evening. For many years, mainstream media avoided referencing twitter because they knew that twitter was a big threat to established media enabling, as it does, the instant dissemination of news around the world. The media had the problem of needing to verify the facts before publishing. Twitter users have no such compunction and therefore ‘news’ spreads faster on twitter. A large part of the decline in traditional media standards is driven by this need for professional media to keep pace with social media.

So, media avoided mentioning twitter for as long as it could but then realised twitter wasn’t going away. It is now very common to see media articles referencing tweets or, as in the case of this RT article, an entire report which might as well be a paid advertisement for twitter. If a piece of journalism can be judged based on the weight of its sources, using random twitter accounts as your source is surely one of the lowest form of journalism. You’d get more reliable information polling the patrons at the local pub ten minutes before closing time on a Friday night.

So, yes, this RT article is rubbish journalism. But the technical elements are there in the use of both plural nouns and the passive voice. By asking the question ‘who’, we see that this whole article is nothing more than a twitter storm-in-a-teacup and can be safely consigned to the garbage can where it belongs.

However, the passive voice can be a lot more consequential. Let’s now look at a more serious example of the use of those same techniques.

In Part 1 of this series, we saw this article in the DW which was trying to smear the Querdenker group by associating them with fringe political parties. That’s a serious allegation and, in order to make it, the DW used the passive voice to make assertions without any source at all.

“…many were shocked to see tens of thousands of people regularly gathering around the country as a movement known as “Querdenker” (“lateral thinkers”) built momentum.”

Who are many? Why were they shocked? The DW does not tell us.

“…the Querdenker movement (and associated demos by smaller groups) has been marked by an unlikely alliance of far-right and far-left fringes, as well as a handful of conspiracy theorists.”

Marked by who? The DW does not tell us.

“The movement’s commitment to Germany’s democratic order was also questioned in late August…”

Questioned by who? The DW does not tell us.

This is serious stuff. If you are a member of the Querdenker, you now have the state sponsored media in Germany giving its readers the impression you are a fringe political group. It does so quoting no sources whatsoever, not even anonymous twitter users. In a court, you have a right to know your accuser. But when a media outlet reports on you using the passive voice, your accuser is unknown.

So, we see that the passive voice is a potentially dangerous tool that can go beyond sloppy journalism and into outright defamation. As readers, we need to be very cognizant of its use. Whenever we see the passive voice or amorphous plural nouns we should always ask the question “by who?” and if the journalist does not tell us we should suspicious of either their competence or their motives.

Reader Exercise

Here is yet another twitter-driven storm-in-a-teacup non-story but I thought this might be fun, in particular for international readers. Check out this BBC article which relates to an occurrence in Australian politics that happened this week. The story refers to a ‘bonk ban’ which was implemented a couple of years ago by a political party in Australia. For those who don’t know, ‘bonk’ is Australian/British slang meaning have sex with. The Prime Minister of Australia interrupted a colleague to object to the use of the word ‘bonk’ by a journalist. His objection seems fair enough to me. They were, after all, at parliament house and ‘bonk’ is a mildly inappropriate word in a formal setting. But, of course, the story got twisted somehow into a gender relations controversy. Strange that the BBC would run it high on their front page. I would have thought they have more pressing problems over there right now.

In any case, there are a few examples of both the passive voice and plural nouns used in the article. So, for this week’s exercise, have a read of the piece and find where they are. Note, the headline is also in the passive voice but because of the use of syntactic elision this is not so obvious. Write out the headline as a full English sentence in order to see that it is in the passive voice. Whenever you see the passive voice, ask yourself the question ‘by who?’ and check that the article provides the answer for you.

Postscript

This series of posts will be more fun if readers can contribute their own examples. Feel free to comment with any juicy examples of the passive voice you find.

All posts in this series:

7 thoughts on “Propaganda School Part 2: The Passive Voice”

  1. First off, I want to say that I really enjoy your writing, especially your series on the corona event. With regard to this current series, my input is that way back in the 90s I did a degree in Journalism at what was purportedly ‘the best journalism school in Canada.’ By the time I was finished I pretty much despised the entire industry and knew that I’d never make a living as a journalist. The training I received pretty much destroyed my creativity and ‘voice’ but did give me excellent research and technical writing skills. In many ways, I’m well trained in the art of propaganda. One of the side effects of this is that I haven’t watched tv news or read the papers (now online news sites) much for the past two decades or so. Since I know how that shit gets done, I prefer to keep it out of my consciousness. When it comes to what passes for the mainstream news media today, on the odd occasion that I do read any of it, I’m always stunned at the utterly lousy quality of the work. If I had handed stuff like that in when I was in J-school 25 years ago I would have flunked out of the program. It’s not necessarily bad that they’re so obvious about it, but I can’t believe the sheer number of people who fall for this crap.

  2. Thanks, Allie. I’m with you on the strategy of simply not consuming news. In fact, I think it’s almost a requirement for mental health these days. There are signs to be hopeful that real journalism could return. Where I live, some independent media and ‘non journalists’ have broken a couple of big stories this year that the MSM failed to touch. There have now been three resignations from government as a result. So, real journalism can still get results.

  3. Oh, and about the “passive voice”, that got you failing grades back in the day. We were warned that doing that type of thing (allegations without a cited source) could lead to libel charges.

    Here (Canada) we have a few good independent news companies. Lately I really like Rebel News. They have a guy in Australia (Avi Yemeni) doing some good stories on what’s going on in Melbourne. Rebel is often labelled far-right, or alt-right, by the MSM, but these days that ought to be interpreted to mean that they say something that challenges the dominant narrative and might even be distributing useful information.

  4. I’ve seen some of Yemeni’s stuff. He’s good fun. I don’t even know what left or right means anymore. It used to be that the sanctimonious wowsers were the right wingers. Now they’re all on the left. Meanwhile, the right are more likely to say stuff that pushes the envelope which used to be the whole point of the left.

  5. Thanks for this, and a very good guide!

    Just now I have no readily available examples, but I have long been wary of that slippery, get-out-of-jail phrase in the passive voice – “mistakes were made”… Whenever you see this one, you know someone has been caught out doing something they should not have done, and they are ducking responsibility by lamenting the unfortunate habit mistakes have – of making THEMSELVES…

  6. Scotlyn,

    The passive voice is a favourite of politicians/corporate management. Would be funny to hear an employee use the same trick.

    “Yes, boss, the work was not completed on time and revenue was not collected from the customer. It is hoped that lessons will be learned so that similar eventualities do not take place in future.”

  7. Heh the writer of that article for the exercise sure likes the passive voice. Thanks for the article.

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