Policy Corner: Why we're careful about how we say people are accused of crimes

  • Neil Holdway

    Neil Holdway

 
 
Updated 9/9/2022 4:06 PM

I'm sure you've seen or heard a lot of media use lines like "John Doe allegedly robbed a bank Wednesday" or "the accused killer will appear in court Thursday" or "Jane Doe was arrested for stealing from her employer."

Though common, these are ideas we don't want to write quite that way, for legal reasons -- libel law dictates that we don't unduly defame people, which means following this country's tenet of innocent until proven guilty -- as well as ethical and even grammatical reasons.

 

First, we follow a policy of not using "allegedly," as in "Doe allegedly robbed a bank," because it's still effectively saying he robbed a bank, just with a slight qualifier. Doe is accused of robbing a bank.

Even better, at least by the terms of libel law, is attributing the statement to a privileged source, which would be from the government, specifically police, prosecutors or what's heard in courtrooms. So we could say, "Police said John Doe, 50, of Doeville robbed a bank Wednesday."

We don't want to write something like "accused killer" because, again, we'd still be calling the person a killer before a conviction. (Grammatically speaking, that's a killer who is accused, as in of something else.) We could say things like "the murder suspect" or simply "the defendant." In long form, it might be, "John Doe is charged with the murder."

We don't say "Jane Doe is arrested for stealing" -- it still sounds like she did steal, before she might have been convicted of it -- but "Jane Doe was arrested and charged with theft."

We at the Daily Herald might go further than some other media do with this kind of phrasing, but we want to avoid not only just the threat of lawsuits but also the possibility of convicting people ourselves when that's the job of juries and judges.

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