Journalism ethics: headline of the day

The following two headlines are factually accurate and grammatically equivalent.

1: Spokeo Violates Federal Consumer Protection Law, Group Alleges

2: Group Alleges Spokeo Violates Federal Consumer Protection Law


However, from a journalistic ethics standpoint, item #1 is problematic.



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  • Unless it’s a headline from Dagobah, headline one is passive voice.

  • This is true. But that’s not an ethical issue. I believe those two headlines stage the story in starkly different ways, and there’s not really a good reason to use the Yoda voice unless you’re up to something, right?

  • The first headline makes “violates” the active verb (as in, “they totally did this…. oh yeah, says some group”), where as they second makes “alleges” the active verb (as in, “maybe they did this, at least, that what some group is saying”). For readers, the first headline confirms Spokeo’s guilt for readers before they even start reading.

    That said, it’s not about ethics anymore — it’s about SEO. And the first headline was likely designed to front load keywords.

  • We have a winner. The one approach says “group alleges” while the other says “Spokeo guilty,” and in a world where allegations need proving I can’t help wondering if the editor has an axe to grind. Or is merely not very good at the job. Or never had a professor like Dr. Denny, who I suspect would frown up that header, as written.

  • Ouch. It’s not passive voice, people. It’s an example of the difference in emphasis that transposing a subject and object makes. *

    Passive voice creates (among other effects) a distance between the agent and the receiver of the action, generally by removing the agent from the subject of the complete sentence and therefore de-emphasizing the role and often the responsibility of the agent. It’s so magical you can even leave the agent out completely. This would be passive voice:

    Spokeo Alleged To Have Violated Federal Consumer Protection Law (who cares who alleged it?)
    FCP Law Allegedly Broken By Spokeo (by whom again? let’s put it in a little prepositional phrase at the end so no one notices)
    or even, if you want to get fancy:
    FCP Law Broken By Spokeo, Group Alleges (first clause is passive, second isn’t)

    What we really have here is a simple sleight-of-object-clause. Like Sam said, grammatically equivalent, but oh, the difference to the reader.

    *But don’t worry. There’s a bajillion varieties of passive voice, and even Strunk and White called ’em wrong… and argued them interminably.

  • Josh, you’re right about the effect, wrong about the active/passive thing. What you want is the grammatical term “demote” – making a word or phrase less important in the sentence. Lots of ways to do that… like frontloading. Love that.

  • I need to remind myself periodically that this place is thick with grammar gendarmery.

  • Back to the cave. *swirling cape, clicking of chitinous feet*


    *scuttle scuttle*

  • Ann is correct on all grammatical points. The “alleged journalism” in example 1 is guilty on all points.

    That is all.

  • I’d prefer no. 2, placing “alleges” before “violates.” Note, too, the present tense of “violates,” suggesting the alleged behavior is ongoing.

    The hed’s bad for other reasons, too. First, I’d never heard of Spokeo. Second, the “group” is vague. The hed fails to do its principal task: Induce me to read the damn story.

    I’d try something like this: “Tech group faults data aggregator on consumer protections”

  • I would guess it depends on the audience. Seems like readers of that blog page would know who Spokeo is.

  • So… purposeful or not? Can you tell from the story?

  • Hell if I know. I can’t read.

  • This story appeared in a forum where most readers would know Spokeo.

  • Damn, Spokeo has just pissed some editors off, looks like. Here’s the WaPo hed, and it’s not much better: Spokeo’s consumer profiling prompts complaint to FTC

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