How passive voice killed off Joe Paterno in the papers (5×8 – 1/23/12)

The Paterno blunder up close, Giffords’ goodbye video, solving suicide in northeast Minnesota, the return of Art Shanty, and stuff public radio listeners say

The Monday Morning Rouser:


There’s an old — and usually ignored — axiom on newswriting (at least for broadcast) that writers should avoid passive voice because it allows critical information to escape — generally who is responsible for the action. An example: “Mistakes were made,” Ronald Reagan once acknowledged about the Iran-Contra scandal. Passive voice allowed him to get away with a crucial piece of information: Who made them?

Plenty of people in journalism don’t recognize the axiom these days, and on Saturday they paid for it with their credibility when they reported that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died, when he hadn’t (yet).


That’s a shot of the outstate edition of the Star Tribune sports section on Sunday morning, posted on Twitter, which carried an Associated Press story, a curious byline since the Associated Press reported on Sunday morning that it did not carry such a report. Someone rewrote the (correct) story the Associated Press supplied to update it with a shaky report of Paterno’s death, cited questionable sources, and kept the AP’s byline.

A spokesman for the Associated Press confirmed for me yesterday that the AP never sent such a report,, but apparently several newspapers — including the local one (David Brauer has the particulars on how that happened)– changed the lead of the provided story, incorrectly keeping the AP byline :


The story had its roots with an editor at a Penn State-focused news website, who cited as his source “an email sent to the football team,” and therein lies the smoking gun — passive voice. Like Reagan’s use, passive voice allowed an important element of the story — which would’ve flagged the story as likely incorrect — to escape. Who sent the email to the football team? Someone on the editor’s desk of the nation’s newspapers should’ve asked that question. The use of passive voice should’ve been the red flag that would’ve led to the obvious question that would’ve led to someone to make one extra phone call.

Other newspapers and websites picked up the report, the Huffington Post stole and published it as its own (it’s what HuffPo does) and it was retweeted. So, naturally, the Washington Post blamed social media.

The Paterno incident demonstrates the consequences of reporting unverified information from an obscure source. It also suggests once again how quickly information, including the inaccurate kind, can move in the digital age. The entire life cycle of the Paterno story — from initial death reports to face-saving corrections — took about 45 minutes.

The episode brings to mind the media chain reaction that followed NPR’s erroneous report a year ago that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had died after being shot in Tucson. Giffords was severely wounded in the shooting, but survived.

Several journalists took to Twitter late Saturday and early Sunday to criticize their own. “Paterno mess should teach journalists to — G-forbid — report before reporting,” tweeted Joe Flint, the Los Angeles Times’ media reporter. “Unlikely, as we we live in age of shoot first and aim later.”

Even in its apology, the editor from the Penn State website went passive:

The source had been forwarded an email ostensibly sent from a high-ranking athletics official (later found to be a hoax) to Penn State athletes with information of Paterno’s passing. A second writer — whom we later found out had not been honest in his information — confirmed to us that the email had been sent to football players. With two independent confirmations of an email announcing his death, managing editor Devon Edwards was confident in the story and hit send on the tweet we had written, informing the world that Joe Paterno had died.

In the how-could-this-have-happened aftermath, the answer provided will be far more complicated than what the answer is. The root of all good journalism is a good English teacher.


Rep. Gabby Giffords’ video announcement that she’s stepping down from Congress is certainly one of the most fascinating uses of the medium by a politician. Never before has a politician produced a campaign-style video to announce she’s resigning.

The Jewish Journal says the second year is critical for people with traumatic brain injuries:

I have met more than one family who is caring for an adult member with TBI at home and the results are often devastating, as the both the patient with TBI and the family caregiver are unable to work, causing both financial and emotional stress for the rest of the family. After the first year of so, many patients can’t get the funding for the additional speech and physical therapy they require, and there are often setbacks, such as seizures, along the way. Services for adults with TBI are piecemeal and fragmented, and determining eligibility, filling out all the paperwork and then fighting to keep services going can contribute to the frustration and despair of many family caregivers.


Without fail every year, the first controversy after the annual anti-abortion rally at the Capitol is a dispute over how many people were there. MPR’s story described the crowd as “hundreds,” e-mailers have taken issue with the tally and said “thousands.”

Fortunately, there’s a way to tell for sure: Compare the photo to previous years.

Here’s the image of the rally from the website of the Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life:


Here’s the crowd from 2008:

There are more images from previous years here. They have not substantially changed in attendance over that time, the photos reveal. In those previous years, I counted each person in wide-angle photos and found about 2,000 people.

Given that “thousands” would be inaccurate with the estimate being a few dozen people off, “hundreds” was the appropriate estimate to use in the story.


In Duluth, an anti-suicide group has an enlightened approach to helping kids who are contemplating suicide, the Duluth News Tribune. They’re on Facebook and text messaging, rather than waiting for the telephone to ring.

“We looked at recent suicides, and we looked at what kids were doing prior to those suicides,” said Dave Lee, director of Carlton County’s public health and human services. “They were texting people or they were on Facebook.”

The texting hot line has already been promoted in all Carlton County school districts and the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School. The Carlton County Public Health and Human Services Department is in the midst of meeting with other districts,

Northeastern Minnesota has one of the highest suicide rates among all ages in the state.

Meanwhile, in the Metro, the Star Tribune reports mental health-related calls to the police are up sharply. Theories include unemployment and financial stress, the struggles of returning military veterans and lack of access to mental health services, an anti-suicide group says.


Art Shanty is back! The shacks of art have popped up on Medicine Lake in Plymouth, there’s new snow, and the Winter Carnival is underway with the annual Medallion Hunt. All is right in Minnesota:

And the snow blocks have been delivered to Rice Park in Saint Paul.

Bonus I: Stuff public radio listeners say:

Bonus II: Doctor G.B. Burt has been a golden glove boxer, a Ford auto line worker, an auto mechanic and a civil rights activist. Here’s a video to inspire your day. He’s a blues singer now, having changed careers at age 79.


The Minnesota Legislature will convene on Tuesday. Today’s Question: What should be the Legislature’s top priority this year?


At 8:35 this morning, MPR will be announcing its revamped programming in the wake of Gary Eichten’s retirement. Please check back.

Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: What is a conservative and what is the conservative movement about?

Second hour: Why do we watch horror movies and gross-out comedies?

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – First hour: TBA

Second hour: TBA

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: TBA

Second hour: TBA

  • The roots of all good journalism is a good English teacher.

    Well said, Mr. Collins!

  • Jim Shapiro

    While it is indubitably important to be able to communicate clearly, there are a lot of second rate journalists who can diagram a sentence until the cows come home.

    I would posit that the roots of all good journalism is a good History teacher.

  • Bonnie Wilcox

    Bob –

    Thanks for yet another great news cut.

    Keep up the good work on suicide awareness. Just found out that the nephew of a woman who took her own life two years ago took his own life last week. Cannot imagine what this family is going through.

    And I appreciate the light-hearted ending with Art Shanty and Sh*t Public Radio Listeners Say.

  • This is NOT lucy

    If I were Paterno, I would sue all of them.

    I would sue them for every stankin’ lincoln they own.

  • Erik Wemple

    Yeah, but there’s no passive voice in “Joe Paterno Dead”; that’s active voice all the way; it’s merely an abridgment of “Joe Paterno IS dead”; and “is” is active voice. There really IS not passive voice of the verb “to die.” That would be something along the following lines: “Joe Paterno was died last night.”

  • Erik Wemple

    Please excuse that prior comment: I thought the author was slamming the headline in that paper AS WELL as the email passive voice; Alas, he did not do that, and so I was wrong. Sorry!