There’s a post going around Facebook, a statement purportedly made by American actor Morgan Freeman on the massacre of twenty children and eight adults, the gunman and his mother, his first victim, included.
Let me quote the part I disagree with the most:
Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer’s identity? None that I’ve seen yet. Because they don’t sell. So congratulations, sensationalist media, you’ve just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next.
While I do not deny sensationalism in the treatment of news, I don’t think there is anything wrong with identifying the cause of the commotion, the perpetrator of the heinous crime. If at all, I think some focus is given on the slayer only because, as with the Batman theater and Oregon mall shooting earlier this year, there was only one criminal (or two in the 1999 Columbine massacre) and there were multiple victims. Even if we had time and space to profile each of the victims, what more can we say but that we lost them and what a loss and for what cruel, inhumane, pointless reason?
As a member of the media, I know I will go to the very bottom of the victim’s story, if he or she were a deliberate target rather than a random victim, such as each of the children of Sandy Hook, who only happened to be there when the twenty-year-old gunman decided to go on a killing spree.
The culprit, on the other hand, is a huge question mark. Why? Why? Why? In the active voice, prefered for vigorous writing over the passive one, the culprit is the doer of the action, the subject of the story, which in this case is a crime, a moment of madness, an explosion of murderous rage that has shaken us to the core.
By any logic, without the subject, the story would be incomplete, with a gaping hole that is sure to leave the audience or the reader in the dark as to why something as horrible as the slaughter of innocents should happen.
Even in a sentence, shifting the focus to the victims, the receiver of the action, from the perpetrator, the doer of the action, leaves the story weak, hanging, and insufficient.
Let me illustrate my point below.
Twelve girls and eight boys, along with six of their guardians, were killed in an indiscriminate shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday morning.
See how incomplete the sentence is — and without a doubt, no matter how averse you are to sensationalism or to the glamorization of the criminal, it leads you to ask “By whom?” or, in the active voice, “Who did it? Who killed them?”
The passive voice has its uses in crime stories, particularly where libel charges should be avoided, such as when a suspect has yet to be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. If you were to say, for example, that Mr. X slit Mrs. X’s throat, but Mr. X is only a suspect, not the convicted killer yet — and neither you nor any other person saw him as the doer of the action — you have no choice but to say that Mrs. X’s throat was slit. By whom you can’t say yet on record without getting into trouble with the libel law.
In one simple sentence, in the active voice, let me now present to you what happened last Friday morning, given that, by the accounts of the witnesses, we can now safely identify the doer of the action.
Adam Lanza killed twelve girls and eight boys, along with six of their guardians, in an indiscriminate shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday morning.
That’s the complete story and the journalist only has to supply some details to develop it into a full report. The details, as presented in the rest of the writeup, may answer further questions, provoke discussion, provide perspective, raise awareness, or call the reader to action. But no self-respecting journalist, as Mr. Freeman or his ghostwriter or whoever it is who pretends to be Mr. Freeman seems to suggest, will hold out on the complete story when he has it.
I do not deny that, before I delved into the other basic elements of the news story, the first question that popped into my mind was “What happened?” But in a basic subject-verb-direct object sentence, the simplest, most basic of sentence structures, a journalist or reporter or media outfit can give me just the information I need.
And all answers I need can be drawn from a three-word question: “Who did what?”
PS: Buried in the Morgan Freeman post on Facebook is a categorical statement dismissing the clamor for more stringent rules on gun ownership in the US. I agree that we should “help by donating to mental health research,” as Mr. Freeman or whoever claims to be Mr. Freeman has recommended. I have a suspicion, however, that the post is in defense of a private citizen’s access to guns for protection. Oh and, Mr. Freeman, at this very hour on Yahoo News, there is a story focused on the victims, a report on funeral ceremonies for six-year-old Jack Pinto and Noah Pozner. Remember their names.