We Need To Abolish The “Exonerative Tense” Of Headlines

The passive voice makes the people at the heart of a crime curiously exempt from blame.

An illustration of a police officer's hat and uniform, holding a smoking gun in the place of where a person should be. There is no hand or head, and a shadow behind the uniform shows a floating hat

This is an excerpt from Quibbles & Bits, the BuzzFeed News copy desk’s newsletter.

Hi, readers,

When we compiled this issue, we did not know it would be our last. 

Our style guide went live on Feb. 4, 2014, launched by BuzzFeed’s first copy chief, Emmy Favilla. Her then–deputy copy chief, Megan Paolone, created this newsletter and sent the first issue in 2016. It focused on grammar tips and shared a question from a colleague: “Is dick-picking ok as a verb?” Our answer: “For the act of sending dick pics (we know, we know), we went with dick-pic-ing — awkward, yes, but dick-picking is another activity entirely.”

Since then, we covered countless topics on language and grammar. We looked at the subtext of the phony term “transgenderism” and its use as a patriarchal weapon to validate hate against trans people. We considered how to cover climate change without being fatalistic. We covered why a hyphen is so significant when you’re writing about antisemitic hate. We showed you how journalists can accurately write about biracial, multiracial, and mixed people. We outlined why person-first language doesn’t work for everybody. We pointed out how ableist language is entrenched in our vernacular, and crusaded against gendered language.

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When a violent crime becomes breaking news, police often are wrong, or they lie. Even in the best cases, the statements put out by police departments push an agenda through how they use language: the so-called past exonerative tense.

From the copaganda marketing term “officer-involved shooting” to the politician fave “mistakes were made,” exonerative language deflects whose fault it is, absolving anyone of accountability and employing the passive voice to misleading ends. It’s also just confusing. In the midst of a scandal, “mistakes were made” conveniently clears the air of any tangible wrongdoing. The “past exonerative” tense, a phrase coined by political scientist William Schneider, is called that “because culpability is impossible when actions no longer exist,” Vijith Assar writes for McSweeney’s, adding that it’s “the ultimate in passive voice.”

You can expect to run into the exonerative tense like clockwork. An editor might use it in a headline (the first, and often only, part of a story a reader sees). The phrasing, some argue, can reinforce the normalcy of police violence, white supremacy, and toxic car culture. A news release or poorly worded article can make a violent police officer seem innocent, minimize intimate partner violence, acquit a negligent driver, and make the people at the heart of a crime curiously exempt from blame. The exonerative tense makes a horrific incident like the murder of George Floyd appear to be tedious and insignificant. Ambiguous grammar can be insidious.

Another example of this semantic gymnastics: In March last year, an Alabama news outlet initially ran a story headlined “Scottsboro officer killed, wife critically injured after shooting” before updating it to the more straightforward “Scottsboro officer shoots wife, kills himself.”

“English has an active voice, a passive voice, and a secret unlockable exhonerative voice that only journalists who are describing cops and soldiers actions use,” one person tweeted last year.

@PatrickKingsley @RajaAbdulrahim English has an active voice, a passive voice, and a secret unlockable exhonerative voice that only journalists who are describing cops and soldiers actions use

Twitter: @SenerisYt

It’s particularly offensive when it shows up in stories about police killings.

Update: As ofcrs contacted the suspect and OIS occurred, one of the officer’s rounds penetrated a wall that was behind the suspect, beyond that wall was a dressing room. Officers search the dressing room and found a 14 year old female victim who was struck by gunfire.

Twitter: @LAPDPIO

A 2022 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at how “obfuscatory language” used in TV news broadcasts about police killings between 2013 and 2019 affected viewers’ understanding of the story and their perceptions of police. They considered these specific language structures: passive voice, which backgrounds the causal agent (e.g., a civilian was killed vs. an officer killed a civilian), removing the causal agent from a sentence altogether (a civilian was killed after a police chase vs. a civilian was killed by an officer), nominalization, which turns what would typically be an adjective or verb into a noun and makes the causal agent’s actions more ambiguous (an officer-involved shooting vs. an officer killed a civilian), and the use of intransitive verbs, which, unlike transitive verbs, do not have a causal agent behind them (to die vs. to kill or to shoot), further muddying who’s accountable.

According to a comparable 1995 study cited in this report, passive language can likewise dampen the severity of intimate partner violence: “Stating ‘The woman was abused by the man’ rather than ‘The man abused the woman’ causes people to be more accepting of violence against women, because passive voice distances perpetrators from their crimes and consequently makes the crimes seem less severe.”

But things aren’t always so black-and-white, and it’d be erroneous to suggest active language is a fix-all in these situations; sometimes we don’t know who is to blame in a shooting or a car crash. And if the victim is someone high-profile, an active headline would bury the lede. The passive voice is impossible to write around in certain cases.

Participants in the 2022 study, the researchers wrote, were “less likely to hold a police officer morally responsible for a killing and to demand penalties after reading a story that uses obfuscatory language.” This type of obscuring language is especially common in a news story’s lede, “which is most salient to viewers.” The researchers conclude, “Narrative structures employed by media outlets, which often mirror those used in press releases and tweets by police departments and unions, impact the way that the public understands harms from policing more generally, as well as support for police accountability and reform.”

Following George Floyd’s murder, the headline on the Minneapolis Police Department’s initial statement was rote and reductive: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction” — “an accurate assessment in the sense that every death is in some way a medical incident,” Philip Bump wrote for the Washington Post a year later. As the Floyd story broke, many people criticized news outlets’ framing that the police officer “knelt” on his neck, which characterizes the action as passive and doesn’t adequately underline the violence of the moment.

And as coverage of the botched police response to the Uvalde school shooting showed, there’s a vast difference between a headline that says “Police delayed breaching the classroom because…” and one that says “Police said they delayed breaking into the classroom because...” A minor shift in phrasing separates (a) what’s uncritically parroting the police’s word from (b) what’s technically more accurate.

We also see the exonerative tense in stories about traffic violence and pedestrian deaths.

“I’m always particularly bothered by passive headlines, particularly ones that remove or misappropriate blame,” said Tom Morash, who posts as @EntitledCycling on Twitter, where he frequently draws attention to dubiously framed stories about traffic violence.

Pedestrian fatalities rose sharply over the last decade, with 2021 marking a 16-year high. A recent estimate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that traffic collisions killed nearly 32,000 people in the first nine months of 2022.

The implications of the exonerative tense are real: In her book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, Angie Schmitt notes how this trend in media coverage shapes readers’ biases. In a 2017 study of news stories on pedestrian fatalities, almost all of the reports “used a few different syntactic and grammatical cues that subtly placed blame on the victims,” Schmitt writes, noting that headlines that used the passive voice (a pedestrian was hit by a car rather than a driver hit a pedestrian) place the onus on the victim. Additionally, many stories identified the vehicle, rather than the driver, as the instigator. “This distances the driver from blame and responsibility,” the study’s author, Heather Magusin, writes.

As a cyclist, this headline pisses me off. This wasn’t a bicycle crash, he was run over by a car. If he had been jogging would they call this a jogging crash? A jogging accident?

Twitter: @taylorkurosaki

Alternatively, here’s an example of responsible headline framing, one that actively leads with the perpetrator and does not mince words: “Man Who Killed Teen Cyclist While Driving at Three Times the Speed Limit in Fog on Wrong Side of Road Faces Jail.”

In a 2018 study on language in news reports of cyclist deaths, Schmitt writes, the coverage was “more likely to blame the victim if there was evidence that the victim was from a lower socioeconomic class.” Plus, when a pedestrian was centered in the framing (e.g., pedestrian struck and killed), readers were 30% more likely to blame the pedestrian than when the driver was centered (driver hits, kills pedestrian).

AP updated its style guidance in 2016 to note: “When negligence is claimed or proven, avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible. In such cases, use crash, collision or other terms.” But if there is no allegation of negligence, AP suggests, accident or crash are “generally acceptable.” BuzzFeed News’ house style is to use crash in all instances.

This philosophy against using the term accident has been around for decades; William Haddon, who in 1966 was appointed head of the National Traffic Safety Agency and the National Highway Safety Agency, reportedly loathed the euphemism, “which he believed made automobile crashes sound inevitable and, by implication, not preventable,” Barron Lerner writes in his book One for the Road. 

Morash noted that “our car-centric society is always so quick to absolve drivers of fault to begin with.”

“The word ‘accident’ having replaced a more appropriate word like ‘crash’ is one of the best examples of this,” he said in an email to BuzzFeed News. “There are entire industries … built on the idea that car crashes are inevitable, who can really be blamed, and everyone has them happen to them eventually.”

His driver’s ed instructor was the first person to teach him there’s no such thing as a car accident; Morash is sharing this lesson with others by highlighting news reports that rely on the exonerative tense, he said.

“It’s like this in a lot of headlines and stories of all types and subjects, and I think it’s important to call it out and try to effectuate change.”

What's the Word?

jaywalking (\ ˈjā-ˌwȯ-kiŋ) (n., v.): when a pedestrian crosses the street in an illegal, reckless, or unsafe way. Once cars were introduced to streetscapes, previously the exclusive domain of pedestrians, drivers began hitting and killing people. As outlined in this clip from Adam Ruins Everything, automotive interests coined the term jaywalking, which effectively pins the blame on the pedestrian, labeling them as jays, a pejorative from the 1920s for a naive interloper from the country bumbling through an urban environment. The term took off, and jaywalking laws soon followed. Cars eventually dominated the space, and pedestrians were relegated to sidewalks and crosswalks. “There is no snappy term, no ‘jaywalking’ equivalent for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians when they are required,” Schmitt writes in her book, “and perhaps that is why it is not widely recognized as a problem.”

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