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‘Riots,’ ‘demonstrations,’ or ‘peaceful protests’?

How a news organization's language choices can shape public understanding of events

Background

After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, 2020, citizens in the United States and around the globe began protesting against systemic anti-Black racism. During this moment of major cultural significance and complexity, citizens rely on journalists to report on events and place them in context. Because readers use this information to inform their own understanding of what is taking place in the world around them, how news organizations present and frame information is critically important. 

 

How the audience understands a story starts with the headline. Headlines are written to draw readers’ attention, but research shows that they can also have an outsized impact on how readers read and remember the details of an article. Moreover, according to one study, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked — more than half of those sharing will have only read the headline. 

 

The mass protests have been a stark reminder that language and word choice matter, and news organizations have been struggling with how to describe the events accurately and without bias. Headlines that refer to the events as “riots” and that emphasize chaos or violence paint a very different picture than those that frame the events as peaceful protests advocating for racial justice. 

 

Media critics have also made note of a more subtle method of framing the events:  the use of passive voice in headline writing. Passive voice is a way of writing that focuses on the person or object that experiences an action, rather than the person or object that performs the action. In the context of protests, passive voice can be used as a way of obscuring who, exactly, is causing the violence.

 

In a clear example of this, a Twitter caption from The New York Times describing events taking place during protests in American cities used both active and passive voice to convey information. While descriptions of violent actions in Minneapolis and Louisville do not identify who performed the action “A photographer was shot”, “A reporter was hit” (passive), the summary of events in Washington, D.C. clearly identifies who performed the action “Protestors struck a journalist” (active). Critics argued that this sentence construction highlighted the protesters’ violence while downplaying police violence.

 

 

Though there can be a time to use passive voice (if the person who committed an action really is unknown), for the most part, writing in an active voice conveys information more directly and clearly. Reporting that “pepper spray caused a short stampede” (a since deleted headline from WUSA9 tweet) does not contain as much information as “police pepper spray protestors, causing a short stampede.” Understanding how seemingly subtle language choices can make big differences to the ways audiences interpret events can help us to seek out more of the story and become more informed citizens.

 

ACTIVITY

Analyzing Headlines

  • Initiate a class discussion about headlines. Ask students to discuss the purpose of headlines and brainstorm traits of an effective headline. 
  • Show students the headlines in the Framing the Protests slide deck (or ask students to find their own). These headlines are all from May 31 or June 1, 2020. For each headline, ask students to consider (or write answers to) the following questions:
    • How does the headline make you feel?
    • How does the headline grab your attention? What words stand out?
    • How does the headline portray the events? Based on the headline alone, what do you expect the article to be about?
    • What does the headline tell you about the point of view of the author or publication?
  • Share responses as a group and initiate a discussion about how the words used in a headline can present very different pictures of the same series of events or issues. Discuss the challenges of presenting complex information in the form of a headline.

 

The Passive Voice

  • Show students the New York Times tweet (content warning: graphic image) and ask them if they notice a difference in how it describes each incident. Ask students to identify who is performing the action in each case. 
  • Explain the difference between the active and passive voice. Ask students to brainstorm reasons someone might use the passive voice instead of the active voice. 
  • Ask students to research the George Floyd protests to see if they can find three articles that use the passive voice in the headline (or use the examples provided below). 
  • For each headline, ask students to answer the following questions: 
    • Can you identify the subject (the person or group doing the action)? You may need to read the article to see if the subject is identified.  
    • If you can identify the subject, rewrite the headline in the active voice. 
    • How does this change the meaning of the headline? 

Examples: 

Glossary

Framing

The specific perspective or angle from which a news story is told.  

 

Media Bias

The favouring of one worldview or interpretation over others that influences what news stories are reported and how.

Further Reading 

 

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