Voice and Context: Building a Corpus of Events to Assess Potential Bias in Digital News Headlines


  • Hanna Smith University of Illinois




Racism, sexism, or other forms of bias may be reinforced by the delivery of a news story. This delivery refers to the grammatical structure of the story including the order in which details of a story are delivered. One tool for organizing grammatical structure – voice, which describes whether an action is active (performed by a subject on an object) or passive (performed on a subject by an object) – is especially useful for embedding impressions of a story in news headlines due to headlines’ brevity. Take for example the headline “Coroner: Man shot by police had BAC of 0.469”. In this headline, active voice is used to describe the victim’s blood alcohol content, emphasizing the victim’s active choices which may incriminate them in this situation. The use of passive voice to describe the shooting de-emphasizes the police’s active choice to shoot the victim. This demonstrates how voice may be used to influence a reader’s perception of responsibility in an event by emphasizing the active choices of one involved party but not the other. Implication of responsibility can create a positive or negative image of an involved party depending on the sentiment of the action carried out by the involved party, so the distribution and context of these instances of voice may prove to be significant in understanding how they are used to create an impression of a news story for the reader – especially when analyzed in a specific social context where voice may be used to support existing bias.