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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.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #365
Carjacking is a subset of hijacking

 

Last week was a tough one in the US because there was so much crime and bad news. We had the Boston Marathon bombings, the subsequent violent manhunt, the ricin mailings, and an explosion at a Texas fertilizer factory.

Although the language issues seem minor compared to the tragedies we watched unfold, there were some interesting things that came up and some readers specifically asked me to address them.

AP Stylebook: Guiding Reporters Since 1953

First, it’s a great opportunity to talk about the importance and meaning of the words “alleged” and “suspect.”  Dean McGee on Twitter asked me about those kind of words.

As I mentioned in last week’s show about style guides, the AP Stylebook published by the Associated Press is the best style guide for news reporters, and as I expected, the AP Stylebook has great entries on “alleged” and “suspect” and defamation in general.

'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.

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.

Sources

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"

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