“What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” A good approach to accuracy in reporting and writing

Accuracy is key in everything we do, and that includes the proper use of terminology to describe crimes, accusations and other dicey topics. I groused about this a long while ago when I noted that the use of “allegedly” makes me twitchy.

As a night-cops reporter, and later a cops editor, I found myself parsing the language a lot, arguing with people who wanted to “simplify” headlines or sentence construction. As I grew into those roles, I realized that big differences exist between certain terms and that I’d rather have ugly sentences than wrong ones. If I’m a grump about this, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. Here’s Mark Memmott at NPR on the topic of legal terms:

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.”

This kind of thing always takes me back to a great scene in the movie, “And The Band Played On,” which describes the Centers for Disease Control and its staff’s attempts in the early 1980s to understand how AIDS behaved and spread. Each time they would gather to analyze some data or discuss some infection patterns, they had to remind each other to stick to the facts, using a simple phrase: “What do we think, what do we know and what can we prove?” In other words, they thought they understood how the illness was transmitted, they knew about how certain people contracted it, but until they could prove something concrete, they had to work harder to nail things down.

Based on the facts available, we know Jamal Khashoggi is dead, as multiple agencies have confirmed this and provided evidence to that effect. We think Khashoggi was murdered, given that multiple accounts of this indicate that the attack on him was planned at least 12 days in advance of the incident. That said, until this is proven in a court of law, we cannot PROVE a charge of murder on any of the individuals involved. For now, we can say he is dead, someone killed him or that there is an investigation into a homicide. It may seem like splitting hairs, but that’s why we have AP as a rule book to help us out.

Memmott also goes into a discussion about the phrase “arrested for” in describing an individual and a crime:

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.”

His point, which I thoroughly support and frequently make, is that saying someone is “arrested for” something means we know they did it and they have been convicted at some point. It conveys guilt when something isn’t proven, much in the same way “allegedly” or “alleged” do.

Think about it this way: Your professor sees you messing around with your phone during a test and assumes you are cheating, thus he kicks you out of class. It turns out you just got a text from your mom that your dad was in a serious accident and is being rushed to the hospital. Thus, you were understandably worried and trying to find out more information.

In this scenario, you are an “alleged cheater,” in that “allegedly” means you are said to have been a cheater by someone (in this case the professor). It would be even worse if the professor announced that he kicked you out of class “for cheating on the exam.” Clearly in this scenario, you haven’t cheated, but either use of verbiage doesn’t make you look all that great.

In applying the “Band” approach, your professor thought you were cheating, he knew you were messing with your phone during a test, but he couldn’t prove you used your phone to cheat (and he would turn out to be wrong once he tried).

This is why attributions (see the “said” post from the other day) matter and it’s a much better way to go: “Beth cheated on the exam, professor Bill Jones said.” or “Professor Bill Jones accused Beth of cheating on the exam.” Both cases demonstrate the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra we espouse around here. The attributions keep you on the side of accuracy and prevent you from getting into trouble if something turns out to be not what it seemed.

The “What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove” approach goes a long way in helping journalists remain accurate, so give it a chance the next time you find yourself digging around in some murky territory.


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