Behind The Scenes

What's in a word: The use of 'alleged'

In a recent blog, Digital First Media's Digital Transformation Editor Steve Buttry declared all journalists should stop using the phrase "alleged victim."

"I want to call on all journalists and news organizations to stop using the term “alleged victim,” especially in stories about sexual abuse (almost the only type of stories where it appears). ... You want to know why? Here’s the second definition of “alleged” at doubtful; suspect; supposed. And here’s a fact about victims of sexual abuse: Their stories are almost always credible. So, in most cases, alleged victim is not only insensitive, but inaccurate."

I would be the first to admit that the word alleged is overused in most all of our police and court reporting, partly as a policy, partly to cover our tails as we report what could be construed as pretty inflammatory stuff about people based on police and court files.

I’ll grant that we need to listen to lawyers and avoid identifying a victim prematurely (not a problem in crimes such as murder or robbery, when it’s clear that crime happened and only the culprit is in doubt; in most sexual abuse cases, either one specific person did it or he didn’t, so identifying a victim kind of says he did). ... But we also should avoid casting doubt on victims of crimes (and nearly all turn out to be true victims; even in cases where the defendant gets off, that’s often because of the difficulty of meeting the high reasonable-doubt burden, not because the person wasn’t a true victim).

Buttry lays out his case, and invites instead use of the word accuser.

I guess I'd have to give more thought before changing a long standing policy, but I'm curious to hear reactions from regular readers, too.

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