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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Does 'alleged' diminish a crime victim's claim?

Recent coverage in The Washington Post about a swim coach’s longtime sexual relationship with an underage swimmer sparked discussion among journalists about using the adjective "alleged" to describe victims.

My position: If there is any doubt as to whether a crime was committed, it is inaccurate to declare the person is a victim.

A different approach is recommended by one of my bosses, Steve Buttry, Digital Transformation Editor for The Saratogian’s parent company. An Oct. 26 entry in his informative, thoughtful blog, “The ButtryDiary,” reads in part:

“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). It’s a blame-the-victim term we should banish forever from the journalism lexicon.
“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.
“(The first definition for alleged, “declared or stated to be as described; asserted,” is accurate, but if people could read a second definition as the meaning, we should look for a more accurate word.)
“I’ll grant that we need to listen to lawyers and avoid identifying a victim prematurely. 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 suggests the alternative word “accuser” when referring to an alleged victim.

I have tons of respect for Buttry, an experienced journalist who does not take ethical issues likely. We in the media do not want to discourage victims from reporting a crime for fear of their identity becoming public. But I’m with @Baltimoresun journalist Michael Gold, who Tweeted rhetorically @migold: “You don't think "accuser" has a more negative connotation than alleged victim?”

I do. We’re reaching for words, when the right one exists. “Alleged victim” does the trick of making clear that someone says a crime has been committed against them, but that claim has yet to be corroborated. Accuser does sound negative. And it doesn’t work when the perpetrator — or alleged perpetrator — is unknown.

 It is regrettable that the terminology casts doubt on the veracity of the claim. But I’m not convinced we should drop “alleged” in describing the victim based on the reality that most claims are true. Some turn out to be false. We should err on the side of accuracy.

We’re dealing with that now in Saratoga Springs, with the victim of an assault. There is no question that the woman was assaulted. But was she raped, as she initially reported? That has not been determined. It is accurate to write that the woman reported she was raped. That makes her an alleged rape victim.

It’s a bit different with people accused of crime. Someone charged with rape is an accused rapist, not a rapist, unless or until the defendant pleads guilty or is convicted. While the case is pending, the defendant can be described as an accused rapist or alleged rapist, though the word “alleged” does not protect a news company from liability for erroneously accusing someone of a crime.

In the case of victims, using “alleged” isn’t a matter of liability. It’s about striving to choose words that report the situation correctly, fairly, and with sensitivity.


Blogger Steve Buttry said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Barb! I hope you and your readers read the comments on my blog (I've seldom had so many responses to a post). The number of people agreeing that "alleged victim" has a negative connotation confirms, in my view, that I'm right that we should stop using that term. However, some did also agree with you that "accuser" sounds negative. I think the dictionary definition is neutral: "a person who accuses, especially in a court of law." It applies to all criminal cases except the rare case where the person identified as the victim is not accusing. Complainant is accurate, and not negative, but sounds like legalese. I'm willing to agree that "accuser" might not be the best term. But it's more accurate than "alleged victim," and journalists should be accurate. We should work to find a better term, not settle for an offensive one.

November 29, 2012 at 9:01 PM 
Blogger Fresh Ink said...

I hope to hear from readers, especially in light of cases in the news. It's good for the public to know that journalists struggle to do the right thing, taking pains to try to choose the right words.

November 29, 2012 at 10:49 PM 
Blogger Maggie Fronk said...

I don't have an answer to this dilemma, but want to applaud you for raising the question.I know that you, Barb, are accutely attuned to the impact on the victim when reporting a story.

Victims often fear that if they report the rape, their identity and details of the assault will become public. Rape is a poignantly personal violation; further attacks to privacy can retraumatize the victim.

While the FBI ranks rape as second only to murder in violent crimes, sexual violence is also the most underreported crime. Rapists are often repeat offenders. We cannot end rape unless victims are willing to report the crime, without fear of their privacy being violated. I applaud your commitment to unbiased reporting and understand the struggles over the nuances and unintended consequences of just one word. Steve Buttry is correct when he says, "We should find a better term, not settle for an offensive one."

Thanks for involving us in the ethics and challenges journalists encounter.

December 1, 2012 at 8:40 AM 
Anonymous Ajlounyinjurylaw said...

The word alleged is noncommittal and only implied. Feels like it takes away direct conviction or liability.

December 5, 2012 at 9:13 PM 

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