Allegedly: The word journalists should avoid at all costs and three ways to do it

I remember once talking to a media law expert about the word “allegedly” and what kind of protection it offered reporters.

“None,” he told me. “The word ‘allegedly’ is why libel lawyers can afford a second yacht.”

He then explained that “allegedly” is nothing but a thinly veiled accusation that lacks a concreted source to support it. Instead of saying, “Smith then allegedly killed Jones with a hatchet,” a good reporter would say, “Smith then killed Jones with a hatchet, police said” or “the criminal complaint stated” or whatever source this came from. All that “allegedly” means is that someone, somewhere said this thing we are now accusing someone of doing.

Ever since that moment, the word “allegedly” has given me hives whenever I hear it in a media report or see it in a news story.

In the case of a TV report about a police officer recovering from a stabbing, “allegedly” felt not only weak, but downright stupid:

 

Let’s look at the anchor’s lead in here and compare it to the web version the station posted:

TV: “Today marks six days since Student Resource Officer Michael Wissink was allegedly stabbed by a student at Oshkosh West High School before shooting and injuring the teen.”

The passive voice in this isn’t great, especially since broadcast thrives on strong, active verbs. What makes it worse, however, is the use of allegedly, because at first glance, it sounds like we don’t believe he was stabbed. He was just “allegedly stabbed.”

Something tells me we can be pretty sure he was stabbed if he spent six days in a hospital, recovering from his injuries.

Weirder still, while the station is only alleging a stabbing, it’s definite on the shooting and injuring part, stating it with certainty.

The web version fixes this pretty easily.

Web: A school resource officer, who police say was stabbed by a student last week, was released from the hospital Monday.

Notice two important things here:

  1. We don’t have “allegedly” but instead we have an attribution to a source (one that operates under the shield of privilege, to boot).
  2. Although this sentence is in passive voice as well, it’s shorter and tighter than the broadcast opening, something that shouldn’t happen. Broadcast is supposed to be short and tight compared to all other forms of media writing.

The writers of these two sentences were trying to explain that the student is innocent until proven guilty of the attack, so it isn’t smart to say the kid stabbed the cop straight out. However, the use of “allegedly” does more harm than good in here.

About 55 seconds into the story, the reporter offers a less-defensible use of “allegedly” when it comes to explaining what happened to the officer:

TV: “Students and staff lined the streets to show support for the officer who was allegedly attacked on school grounds.”

If the first case made it seem like we possibly didn’t believe the officer was attacked, this case basically says it. Here, the use of “allegedly” is even dumber because it’s unclear who the heck the reporter is trying to protect with his “allegedly” shield.

I see only two, equally stupid reasons for “allegedly” here:

  • The reporter is afraid this guy made up the attack, and thus hopes “allegedly” will cover it.
  • The reporter is afraid the guy got his ass kicked at a bar or something and then staggered over to school and claimed the whole thing happened on school grounds to get worker’s comp.

And, once again, the web version is tighter and it dodges the problem altogether:

Web: The escort went from the hospital in Neenah to Oshkosh. The motorcade passed by Oshkosh West High School where faculty, staff, and students stood outside to cheer.

This delivers essentially the same information (actually in more of a broadcast style as well) and does so with no need for attribution. We can prove the escort went from Point A to Point B without needing a GPS tracker on the guy. Also, we can say without fear that people were outside cheering (We even have photos of that!) so we’re OK there.

“Allegedly” is one of those words that will imbue you with a false sense of confidence in your writing. It can make you feel like you have protected yourself when you haven’t and can give you a feeling of authority when you are completely lacking in it. Here are a couple simple tips to help you dodge the “allegedly” bug:

  • Attribute: If “allegedly” is just an accusation, let’s see who’s doing the accusing. If it’s someone we think should be doing so (police, courts, the pope etc.), then let’s say so. “Police said Smith hit Jones with a golf club.”  If the person alleging this has an axe to grind, we probably want to think twice about it, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the accusation: “John Smith, who divorced Mary Smith last month, said Mary Smith once tried to kill him with a golf club.” (It probably wouldn’t hurt to include a response, if possible: “Mary Smith stated in a court filing that the incident involving the golf club was ‘blown out of proportion’ during the divorce.”)

 

  • Write what you can prove: Instead of telling readers what you don’t know, try telling them what you do. Instead of “The officer was allegedly stabbed by a student,” try  “The officer suffered multiple stab wounds.” The second example from the web does a good job of showcasing how to avoid the “allegedly” issue by just explaining the people lined the streets and cheered. By this point in the story, we probably know about the stabbing, so repeating it here and introducing another “allegedly” doesn’t do much good.

 

  • If you aren’t sure, don’t use it: The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. So, if you get some information that you can’t verify or that feels a little shaky, it doesn’t follow that you HAVE to publish it, with an “allegedly” or otherwise. Try to get a source that will back up what you want to write or find a way to write something that is a bit sturdier than whatever you’re about to allege. If you can’t make that work, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

 

 

 

 

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