Alleged, Accused, Suspected: When Can We Stop Using Those Words?

The murders Friday night in Santa Barbara have once again raised questions about whether we need to keep using words such as “alleged” or “suspected” when reporting about a now-deceased person who has been identified by authorities as the killer.

Here’s my take:

At some point — and we reached that fairly quickly in this instance — it just makes common sense to stop inserting those words.

And as long as we properly attribute what we’re reporting, in a case such as this we don’t need to keep saying and writing things such as “alleged.”

Several constructions could be used, including:

– “The young man who went on a killing spree in Santa Barbara, identified by authorities as Elliot Rodger … ”

– “Elliot Rodger, who police say killed six people before taking his own life …”

– “The young man who investigators say murdered six people Friday in California before killing himself …”

Some questions to ask before any shift in language:

– Has the person been positively and publicly identified as the killer by proper authorities?

– Have authorities ruled out the possibility of someone else being involved?

– Were there many witnesses? (In other words, did dozens or more see this unfold?)

– Is there considerable video evidence? And, as in this case, a long manifesto?

– Has the inevitable confusion that comes when such events happen been resolved? Often, for example, witnesses and authorities initially get things wrong — including the name of the person responsible.

This is not to say that it necessarily hurts to be cautious and slip in an “alleged” or “suspected.” But as we’ve discovered now several times, at some point it begins to raise more questions in listeners’ and readers’ minds if we keep using such words when it’s become obvious that the person responsible has been identified and is dead. A reasonable consumer of our news might wonder if we’re implying he didn’t do it.

What about a person who’s still alive, such as the young man who will be tried for the Boston bombings? He has not been convicted. Obviously, we can’t declare he’s guilty. That’s for a jury to do. We can keep referring to him as a suspect and report about what he’s alleged to have done. But common sense applies there as well. We might say, for example:

– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who goes on trial today for the Boston bombings …”

– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who federal prosecutors say conspired with his brother to …”

– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who could receive the death penalty if he’s convicted of …”

– “Prosecutors say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother …”

A related note: It isn’t accurate to refer to Elliot Rodger only as a “shooter.” Police say his first three victims were stabbed to death.

But editors here have also been discussing whether “shooter” is even the right word to use about those responsible for mass murders involving guns. I’d like to hear whether you think it can sometimes sound like too “light” a description for such a person or whether it’s one of several words — including “gunman,” “attacker,” and “killer” — that can work interchangeably.

(Memmos, May 27, 2014)

May 27, 2014

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