Deadly words

Our recent double-homicide presents an opportunity to talk about how important it is that we use words precisely. When you find yourself writing or editing the words “killer,” “murderer” and “homicide,” alarm bells should go off in your head to justify the use for each one so you don’t open yourself and the Star up to a libel suit. We played it extremely safe by calling the killer a “homicide perpetrator.” This is awkward, but accurate. In this case I would recommend changing the headline to use “killer.” The police are calling it a homicide, so by definition, somebody killed them. I will break down these words of concern:

Before police know the identity of the person they believe committed a crime

Perpetrator: OK
Police have declared a crime has happened. They are looking for the person(s) they believe did it, but they are not looking for a specific person by name.

Killer, robber, etc.: OK
Only OK if not associated with a specific person at this stage.

Suspect: NO
Using “suspect” will not land you in legal trouble, but from a technical point of view, you’re not correct.

After police know the identity of the person they believe committed a crime … OR … Once someone is charged with a crime … or … SOMEONE is in court at any stage of trial … or anytime before a conviction

Killer, murderer, robber, etc.: NO, NO, NO!
This is the instance of greatest concern. Calling someone a murderer before he or she is convicted of murder is a clear example of libel.

Alleged killer, murderer, robber, etc.: NO!
It’s best to write: “John Smith, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Sam Jones, …” The charge is an undisputed fact and, therefore, always safe to use. “Alleged” does not offer legal protection. Read on from a entry written for the Poynter Institute by Scott Libin is news director at WCCO-TV, the CBS-owned-and-operated station in Minneapolis.

Now, a little advice on alleged:  Avoid it.

It’s a word journalists should use no more often than necessary – and, more important, one that offers none of the protection some users seem to think it does.  To allege means to assert without offering proof.  To slap the adjective alleged or the adverb allegedly in front of some damning characterization does not diminish the damnation.  That is, it doesn’t protect the writer or speaker from being sued.  (See paragraph above to review my legal qualifications.)

Suspect: YES
If police are looking for a specific person in connection with a crime it’s OK to use suspect. This is not the same as person of interest.

Person of interest: AVOID
This is a person police just want to question about a crime. These people are not elevated to the level of suspect. Many journalists have a problem with this term because readers often interpreted it in a more damning light than is justified. It’s best to say that someone is being interviewed by police and not use the techno-term anyway.

After someone is convicted of a crime

Murderer, killer, robber, etc.: YES with a caution
If that’s what they were convicted of, then it’s a legal fact. Be careful, though. Someone could have been found guilty of lesser charges, such as manslaughter, making these terms incorrect.

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