The Language of Crime
Last week was a tough one in the US. Although we shouldn’t forget the crimes, some readers asked me to address language issues that came up in the news coverage.
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“Alleged” and “Suspect”
I watched the news closely last week, and I could see the stories changing before my eyes. What seems to be fact one minute can turn out to be wrong the next. People were incorrectly named as suspects in the Boston bombings, and the person arrested in the ricin case was released and now police are investigating another man. That is why, until someone is convicted or is somehow proven to have been the bomber, we say he is a suspect and not that he is the bomber.
If photo had shown guy lighting fuse sticking out of backpack at 755 Boylston, I'd be calling him a bomber, not a suspect.— Bill Walsh (@TheSlot) April 18, 2013
It was interesting to me that AP even recommends against modifying a person’s name with the accusation, against phrases such as “suspected murderer John Jones” and “alleged murderer John Jones.” Instead, it recommends separating the accusation from the person’s name more by using phrasing such as “John Jones, suspect in the murder” and “John Jones, accused of the murder.”
It seems like a minor distinction, but in the US, people are presumed innocent until they’ve been proven guilty, and we recognize that people are harmed when they are falsely accused, so I believe the guiding principle is to consider what would be the least damaging way to present the information in the event that the accused person later turns out to be innocent and to avoid judging people before they have been judged in a trial.
Another important point the AP makes is that it’s not a reporter's job to allege or accuse; reporters need a source for the allegations and accusations. People become suspects when the proper authorities make a statement that they are suspects. People are accused of a crime when the proper authorities accuse them. It’s irresponsible to call people suspects or to say they’ve been accused based on unofficial reports.
Next: "Hijack" Versus "Carjack"