Finsbury Park terrorist becomes invisible in passive news headlines

A 48-year old man drove a van into a crowd of people in the Muslim neighborhood of Finsbury Park in London, but he’s mostly missing from the news headlines about the attack. Why? Is it journalists’ passive writing habit, bias in a case where Muslims were victims rather than attackers, or just a need for brevity?

Ruwayda Mustafah, a British-Kurdish blogger and Ph.D. candidate, shared a graphic of news headlines on Twitter. These headlines, which appeared soon after the attack, focus on the vehicle and not the driver.

A survey of headlines reveals a passive media approach to terrorism

At the time Mustafah posted the headlines in the graphic, very little information was available about the driver. But let’s take a closer look at how media are describing the incident now, several hours later. Here are the top 15 Finsbury Park headlines from Google News (I searched in incognito mode to reduce bias from my previous search history):

London’s Finsbury Park — a closer look
CNN. The area of north London where a vehicle ploughed into worshippers who had left a nearby mosque early Monday is vibrant, ethnically diverse and home to a strong Muslim community. On Fridays, worshippers can be seen heading to and from the …

What we know: Pedestrians struck in terror attack near London mosque
CNN. Here’s what we know so far about an incident in which a van drove into pedestrians near Finsbury Park Mosque, north London, in the early hours of Monday morning, injuring several people. Follow live updates here. “This is being treated as a terrorist …

CNN. A man died and 10 people were injured after a van was rammed into a crowd of worshipers near a mosque in north London, in the latest terror attack to hit the …

BBC News.‎ One man was killed and another 10 have been injured after a van drove into worshippers close to a mosque in north London. The terror attack happened shortly before 00:20 BST on Monday, 19 June, when the vehicle mounted the pavement outside the …

Finsbury Park attack: Pontyclun Van Hire vehicle examined
BBC News. The van which drove into worshippers near a north London mosque belongs to a Welsh hire firm. One man has died and 10 people have been injured after a van mounted a pavement near Finsbury Park Mosque. Forensics officers are examining a white van …

Van plows into crowd near London Finsbury Park mosque, killing one
USA TODAY. Police arrested a 48-year-old man suspected of driving the van into a group of people as they left the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London shortly after midnight. He was arrested after being detained by members of the public, the Metropolitan Police said.

Finsbury Park, London: Attacker hits Muslims with van near mosque
CBS News. The Finsbury Park mosque’s chairman, Mohammed Kozbar, called the incident a “cowardly attack” in a statement on on Twitter. “Our thoughts and prayers with those who got injured and [affected] by this cowardly attack in Finsbury Park area, many …

48-year-old white man arrested in connection with Finsbury Park mosque terror attack
Business Insider. LONDON — The police said the van that ploughed into pedestrians near the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London is being treated as a “terrorist attack.” Prime Minister Theresa May will chair an emergency meeting later on Monday. A man driving a white …

Van Hits Muslim Worshippers Near London’s Finsbury Park Mosque Worshippers had just finished prayers during the holy month of Ramadan when the vehicle slammed into people walking in the Finsbury Park area at 12:20 a.m. local time (7:20 p.m. ET). Two witnesses told NBC News that the driver laughed after crashing …

Finsbury Park, London: Muslims targeted in terror attack near mosque
CBS News. LONDON — A man slammed a van into a crowd of worshipers leaving a London mosque after midnight Ramadan prayers on Sunday morning in what Prime Minister Theresa May has called “another terrorist attack” in the British capital. CBS News …

Finsbury Park mosque: Man dies as van hits worshippers The 48-year-old driver of the van has been detained by bystanders and later arrested by police after the incident in Finsbury Park. The UK’s Counter Terrorism Command is investigating the attack, which occurred just after midnight on Monday. Witnesses

Imam praised for protecting Finsbury Park suspect from crowd
The Guardian. Three men who say they helped to restrain the suspect in the attack near a north London mosque have praised an imam who urged the crowd not to do him any harm. After a van ploughed into a group of people in Finsbury Park, members of the public …

Here are some stats about this group of 15 headlines and ledes, which, as near as I can tell, are representative of the headlines in most of the articles about this tragedy:

  • Two of 15 headlines mention the driver. CBS news calls him “attacker,” while Business Insider identifies him as a “48-year-old white man.” In all the rest, the driver is missing; the main nouns are the attack, the neighborhood Finsbury Park, the victims, the van, and the mosque.
  • Five more of the articles mention the attacker in the lede, but eight of the 15 headlines and ledes don’t mention the driver at all.

Headlines and ledes are short. In a tight space they must explain what happened, where, who got hurt, and who did it. But it’s notable that so many of these cases, the missing noun is the person who responsible for the attack.

While authorities have not revealed his identity, omitting him creates a strange narrative in which vehicles seem to autonomously ram into pedestrians. The reader, inevitably, wants to know “Who would do such a thing?” When radical Islamists attack, there’s a constant drumbeat of Arabic-sounding names to reinforce the narrative of dangerous terrorists, but in this case, with Muslims as the victim, the attacker is absent from most of the headlines and ledes.

These headlines and ledes are curiously passive

Attacks are active. People attack things or other people. But the coverage in these headlines and leads is rife with passive voice. For example (passive shown in bold):

  • Pedestrians struck in terror attack.
  • This is being treated as a terrorist attack.
  • A van was rammed into a crowd of worshippers.
  • One man was killed and another 10 have been injured.
  • He was arrested after being detained by members of the public
  • Our thoughts and prayers with those who got injured and [affected] by this cowardly attack.
  • The van that ploughed into pedestrians near the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London is being treated as a “terrorist attack.”
  • The 48-year-old driver of the van has been detained by bystanders and later arrested by police.

As always, these passive beg the question of who did things. Who struck the pedestrians? Who is treating it as a terrorist attack? Who rammed the crowd and killed a man? Who detained the driver and who arrested him?

Given the brevity of headlines and ledes, these passive constructions are a consequence of not having space to explain that the actors are missing. The writers have chosen to concentrate on the victims and the attack, rather than the unidentified driver, bystanders, and officers. But consider how differently these phrases read in the active voice:

  • Terrorist strikes pedestrians
  • Police are treating this as a terrorist attack.
  • A man rammed a van into a crowd of worshippers.
  • The attack killed one man and injured 10.
  • The police arrested the man after members of the public had detained him.
  • As for the people that this attack injured and affected, our thoughts and prayers are with them.
  • Authorities are treating the van that ploughed into pedestrians near the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London as a “terrorist attack.”
  • Bystanders detained the 48-year-old driver of the van and police later arrested him.

In an attack, focus on the people

Are these headlines a conscious effort to make this attack on Muslims seem less awful than similar attacks on other victims? I don’t think so. Failing to mention unidentified attackers and describing actions in the passive voice are just shortcuts that journalists use to get to the point quickly and put the emphasis on what they actually know.

But regardless of the intent, the effect is the same — to distance readers from the awful nature of what happened and who did it.

If you are a writer, make an effort to put the actors in the subjects of your sentences, even if you don’t know their names. Identify every passive voice sentence; rewrite them to reveal who’s doing stuff. It’s the honest way to identify whomever actually did what you’re writing about. The more awful the act, the more important it is to put the actor as the subject of your sentence.

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  1. It would be most interesting to have a similar comparison done for a broader number of attacks, particularly ones in which a vehicle was used as the weapon. Is “burying the lede” common, does this not happen when the attacker is perceived Muslim, is not identifying the race/nationality/possible religion of the attacker a randomized outcome?

    Clearly, “white guys” being perceived as getting special treatment rankles, as it should. That said, what is the real truth?

  2. On what do you base your assumption that this is just passive writing. Surely if that was the case reporting of attacks by Muslim attackers would be equally passive. But you give no examples of that.