Passive voice headlines must be avoided

Yes, I did that title on purpose. Passive voice is so easy to slip into.

I wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe regarding why it now makes sense for the federal government of the US — regulators and lawmakers — to bring the full weight of enforcement on Facebook. The original title was “The Hubris of Facebook.”

I was pleased when they published it online yesterday and in print today. I was less than pleased when I saw the new title: “Facebook must be stopped.”

As you know from the zombies test, this is passive: “Facebook must be stopped . . . by zombies!”

This is exactly the type of passive-voice headline that appears all over opinion pages. “Taxes must be lowered!”, “The homeless must be dealt with!”, and the like. These headlines show that something must be done, but don’t say who is supposed to do it. Without saying who should fix these problems, these cries of alarm are ineffectual.

In my case, though, the op-ed explained in detail not just what to do, but who should do it (as indicated below in brackets):

First, break Facebook up: Spin off Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus VR into separate companies to reduce the massive aggregation of consumer data. [FTC anti-trust enforcers and Department of Justice]

Second, require transparent documentation of the evolving Facebook and Instagram algorithms, so researchers can examine them for bias and toxic effects. [FTC anti-trust]

Third, reopen Facebook’s aggregated data to researchers. (In August, Facebook cut off data to researchers, probably in an attempt to avoid scrutiny of its biases.) [FTC anti-trust]

Fourth, implement a fairness doctrine to require that Facebook show members content from opposing points of view. [Congress, or the FCC]

Fifth, investigate Facebook for allegedly lying to and withholding material financial information from investors, such as the material revealed by Frances Haugen. [SEC regulators]

Finally, mandate a five-fold increase in spending on content moderation, to improve the pathetically low percentage of hate speech, pernicious misinformation, and catfishing that the company actually catches. A five-fold increase might put a serious dent in the flood of questionable content that slips through. [FTC anti-trust, or FCC]

Better headlines

Headlines, especially in newspapers, must be short enough to fit. It easy to slip into passive by lazy default, but there are plenty of active-voice headlines or commands that would do fine here:

  • Stop Facebook now.
  • Sanction Facebook.
  • It’s time to sanction Facebook.
  • The Feds must rein in Facebook.
  • Why, and how, we must stop Facebook.
  • Facebook has gone too far. Time to act.

Hoist on my own petard

I sent a polite note to my editor at the Globe about this. I know that the writers don’t get to choose the headline, but I wanted to make sure future headlines wouldn’t be in passive.

She pointed out that she’d taken the headline from my own tweet!

They’d published the article with my original hubris title online, and I tweeted to drive traffic to it. The Globe team then tested several headlines for the print version, including one taken from my own passive tweet — and the passive tweet won.

I apologized of course, since they were following my own words.

Even so, I was wrong. My tweet doesn’t say who should stop Facebook — and as a result, it’s much weaker than the article. It’s a good example of how, when writing quickly, you can gin up a passive without much thought. It’s easier than worrying about who is supposed to do what.

The moral of the story is to get in the habit of double-checking for passives, especially in short content (headlines, as well as tweets). It’s a little extra work, but you’ll get used to it soon.

Passive voice is not incorrect, but rewriting in active voice is nearly always an improvement.

And be careful if you want to blame the editor — she’s probably right, and you’re probably wrong.

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  1. Writing headlines is fun, and a bit like playing Scrabble. You should rearrange the words [or tiles in Scrabble’s case] until you find a suitable, high-impact, concise option. We used to write headlines on the blackboard in high school for the paper. You had to “count characters” to fit the space available — capital Ms were 2, while skinny letters like lowercase I’s were 1/2; all the other letters were a count of 1. It was fun and challenging and taught us the nuts-and-bolts of headline writing. That’s why the original 140-character Twitter was more fun and challenging, too.

  2. “Stop Facebook Now” is for me the epitome of a bad headline. Who is the target of this imperative? The FTC? Then why am I reading an article intended for them? Because a collective motivation is necessary? Multiple actors are needed? Then “Facebook must be stopped” is a better title.

    Forget about Strunk and White, who decried the passive without even defining it correctly. And keep using the passive, a glorious and useful structure: “one taken from my own passive tweet” is passive voice. “You’ll get used to it” is passive voice. (Who used you? Does it matter?) “Who is supposed to …” (Supposed by whom?), etc.