April 28, 2013

How to correctly use "alleged" and "suspect" in reporting

Great post from Grammar Girl last week on the language of crime.

If you followed the Boston bombing story, you know how rapidly it changed—what seemed to be a fact one minute turned out to be false the next.

As a journalist it's important to avoid liability for defamation, and the AP Stylebook published by the Associated Press has great entries regarding the use of the words of "alleged" and "suspect" to shield you from that liability. AP advises against modifying a person's name with the accusation, avoiding phrases like "suspected murderer John Jones" and "alleged murderer John Jones." Instead, it recommends separating the person's name from the accusation by using phrasing such as "John Jones, suspect in the murder" and "John Jones, accused of the murder."

This may seem like a minor distinction, but because in the US people are innocent until proven guilty, we need to consider what would be the least damaging way to present the information in the event that the accused party turns out to be innocent.

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