Don’t Declare Murder Or Imply Guilt

There were several Web summaries posted over the weekend that flatly said Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. We should not be doing that in any stories, online or on air. NPR agrees with the AP that:

“Homicide is a legal term for slaying or killing.

“Murder is malicious, premeditated homicide. …

“A homicide should not be described as murder unless a person has been convicted of that charge.”

If others use the word “murder,” we can attribute it to them (“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Khashoggi had been ‘brutally murdered.’ “)

But when NPR is referring to his death, “killed” is the best word to use.

It may seem like a distinction without a difference. But it is important to apply the same standards to all developing stories. And remember, action words can describe what is said to have happened more effectively than labels.

It also may seem like we’re waiting for something that may never occur: a conviction. As always, we reserve the right to change our thinking — but not before discussions with senior editors (DMEs and above).

This guidance comes to you with help from our copy editors (Susan Vavrick, Pam Webster, Patricia Cole, Arielle Retting).

They also point out that a wrong word or two in any story about alleged criminal activity can imply guilt. For example, we shouldn’t say someone is charged “for” a crime. It’s not only incorrect grammatically (“with” is the proper word), it also connects the crime to the suspect more closely than we should.

Compare these headlines and you’ll see why “for” is a problem:

- “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested For Tampering With Nassar Evidence.”

- “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested, Accused Of Tampering With Nassar Evidence.”

And these:

- “House Intern Arrested For Reportedly Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”

- “House Intern Arrested, Charged With Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”

(“Memmos;” Nov. 19, 2018)

November 19, 2018

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