When “suspected” and “alleged” are irrelevant

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allegedHow many sources does a good reporter need to confirm something before his or her editor can consider it “good” information?  And I’m not talking about Twitter being a legitimate source .

How about in the case of a major crime, like the recent San Bernardino terrorist attack?

Long after dozens of witnesses and law enforcement officials confirmed that the terrorists were, in fact, THE terrorists, some media outlets still referred to them as “suspected shooters” or “alleged shooters.”

I heard one argument that the general rule is that it's always "alleged" or "suspected" until the accused has been convicted in court.  I think that’s the easy way out.  With that many witnesses, or sources, why would it take a court of law to confirm those facts?

The two terrorists were both shot and killed by police.  They WERE the shooters.  When can the media actually acknowledge that?

Michael Bluhm, who teaches journalism ethics at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, said:

“When law enforcement says they are the shooters -- then they ARE.  The media is often at the mercy of law enforcement on their terminology, and credible media outlets, like AP, have a whole team of people checking on appropriate uses of terminology, such as accused, suspected, etc. In a case like San Bernardino, It’s ludicrous to play the alibi game.”

Matt Hall, public engagement director for The San Diego Union-Tribune, national board member and region 11 director for the Society of Professional Journalists and president of the SPJ San Diego Pro Chapter, had this to say about it:

“Journalists’ reliance on words like ‘suspected,’ ‘alleged’ and ‘accused’ is an essential part of the job and depends on a range of factors. Journalists should err on the side of caution, but many might drop the terms on a case-by-case basis as a story develops. That decision would depend on the circumstances of a particular incident, the number of witnesses, the certainty of the police and those witnesses, the availability of video or other evidence, whether the accused is alive to stand trial or sue for libel and whether anyone has another version of events. Looking at that list, many reporters likely felt comfortable early on in the San Bernardino situation making definitive statements that the couple killed by police were the regional center shooters, although their decisions on when to do so varied. In the SPJ Code of Ethics, we specifically suggest journalists balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort, balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know and consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges. Importantly, we advise reporters to seek the truth and report it while minimizing harm.”

Facts are facts.

Scott Hanson
Scott Hanson
President Scott is president of HMA Public Relations and a founding member of the Public Relations Global Network. He’s a Phoenix native, husband, father of two and a fan of all sports and a participant in some. Check out Scott's full bio

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