Blogs > Fresh Ink

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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Unashamed to be grateful on Thanksgiving

A year ago, a doctor at Albany Med said my father wouldn’t make it to his 82nd birthday in December without dialysis, a life-prolonging option that dad rejected. He’d had enough. He’d made peace with himself, his family and God.  
On Thursday, he will be holding court at the end of my dining room table, no doubt asking for a second helping of my son David’s stuffing and a small piece of his son-in-law Jeff’s blueberry pie. The kidney failure halted, and though the past year has had its medical and emotional ups and downs, Dad is with us. That is a gift for which I am grateful.
My sons will be at the table, too. The Windy City promises to remain calm for Joe’s flight home from grad school, and David is confident that he’ll be able to file his Thanksgiving Day stories for his editors at the Daily Gazette in time for dinner, or at least for the traditional post-meal Scattergories. Nothing makes this mother happier than to have her children at hand.
And then there’s my husband of, let’s see, holy smokes, 34 years, doing our own things while also enjoying each other’s company. We had nine fun years before kids, a wonderful and relatively easy time raising them, and transitioned without a bump into the empty nest. I’d tell you that we warn David, who lives in town, to knock before entering, but that would be too much information. Let me just say that I am so thankful to have Jim as my partner in life.
I am grateful, too, that Jim and I stay in touch with our siblings and that some of them and their children will be joining us for Thanksgiving. I bought my overly long dining room table 30 years ago with the hope that it would be surrounded time and again by family and friends.
I consider myself lucky. Many people, I know, have suffered losses, are facing serious problems, are struggling, have aching hearts. My thoughts and prayers are with these relatives, friends, colleagues and strangers.
I am thankful for my health, for a comfortable and happy life, and for the predisposition to recognize every day as a gift. Sounds simplistic and sentimental, but so what? I have much to be thankful for. I hope you do, too.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What police don't say, and how they don't say it, matters

Good intentions but bungled communications have caused the handling of a reported rape in Saratoga Springs to be blown way out of proportion, leaving the city police department open to unfair and inaccurate accusations of a cover-up or victim-blaming. As best as we can tell, it wasn’t the investigation that was mishandled, it was the communications.
People want to know if a rapist on the loose in Saratoga Springs and, if so, what are the police doing about it.
The honest answers seem to be: maybe, and as much as they could do.
The brouhaha might have never occurred had the police responded constructively to repeated requests for information from the media and the public. All they had to say was something to this effect: A woman reported to police that she was sexually assaulted at (time) (date) (general vicinity). Police are investigating to determine what happened, where it happened, and a description of the assailant. Further information will be provided as it becomes available.
Then, as further information became available, it should be released.
More than two months since the incident, pretty much all we know is that it is considered an open case, which means the police believe it prudent to not release any more details.
When police say they can’t reveal the details in a case like this, here’s what I read into it: The details are fuzzy, perhaps because the victim had trouble getting her story straight. Doesn’t mean she wasn’t assaulted; doesn’t mean the police treated it lightly; does mean the circumstances, as described by the victim, are unclear. That’s my guess.
The police absolutely cannot make public everything they know. And when their hands are tied, their tongues are tied, too. Public relations missteps from the top down have made the police look bad, and that’s a shame. Effective communications is a skill. Not everyone has it, especially under pressure.
I’d still like to hear Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen say, flat out, that the communications should have been handled differently. But, I agree with Mathiesen who, in an email responding to The Saratogian’s Sunday editorial, wrote, “There was no cover-up, no failure to recognize the seriousness of this crime, … no lack of appreciation for the subsequent safety of women in our community.”
He notes that the editorial was correct “about the need for improving the working relationship between the police and the press. From what I have been told, particularly in this case, mistakes may have been made. I would like to meet with members of the press to discuss ways that we can work together better.”
That was good news, and not surprising. I’ve only met Mathiesen a couple of times, and he struck me as reasonable and thoughtful. He has been on the City Council only since January, and hasn’t had to deal with public relations disasters and an angry public. We at The Saratogian are taking him up on the offer to sit down and talk about how to work together better, which will result in a better informed public. I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hey, no peeking at my ballot

I got the creeps when I voted yesterday.
I thought the ballot was designed to stick out of the cardboard sleeve just enough to be fed into the vote-counting machine. That guarantees your vote remains private.
Instead, the man making sure my paper ballot registered correctly had told me to remove the ballot from the cardboard. And, call me paranoid, as he glanced down at my sheet, he could see how I voted.
At the machine at my ballot, he said slowly, “Wait, wait, wait,” and when the machine indicated my vote had been counted, he said, “Go home.”
Maybe he didn’t really look at which circles I’d darkened. But he easily could have. Even by accident. It could be intimidating.
I admit I liked the old machines. I liked the clicking sound of selecting candidates in a private booth and the schwing when you yanked the lever to register the vote and open the curtain.
However, I am in favor of ways that make it faster, easier and more efficient for people to vote and for votes to be recorded. But election workers need to be trained to help the voter feed the ballot from the sleeve into the machine. No peeking.

Monday, November 5, 2012

An inside look at election endorsements and more

A bunch of us will be in The Saratogian newsroom and a handful will be out in the field Tuesday night, hoping for results in time for our 11:45 p.m. press deadline.
I expect there will be a number of close races in spread-out districts that may indeed be “too close to call.” By 11 p.m., my worry is not who won, but whether we’ll be able to get it in print. We’ll have a couple of front pages mocked up for the various options.
But that’s the beauty of the Internet. Staffers will stick around to get results online.  
Frankly, I’m ready for the elections to be over.
The Saratogian had more than 16 hours of election-related in-person sessions — hour-long chats with Republican and Democratic candidates for the 112th and 113th Assembly districts, the 43rd and 49th Senate districts, and the 20th and 21st congressional districts, as well as representatives of Saratoga Citizen and Saratoga Success, the respective proponents and opponents of the city government change on the ballot.
All of these were informal discussions, all “on the record” – meaning everything said could be used for publication. Also, we videotaped competing candidates answering the same questions in the same order. Those videos can be seen The Saratogian website.  
I participated in all of those sessions; Assistant Managing Editor Betsy DeMars missed only one. The reporter covering the specific election sat in, too.
These sessions were useful for our news coverage and in making editorial endorsements.
For the endorsements, we also took into account coverage of the races, voter forums, and input and materials provided by the candidates and their campaigns.
Afterward all the personal discussions were done, we sat down with Publisher Mike O’Sullivan and reached a consensus about whom to endorse. Most were not unanimous decisions. I am happy to say that we have a mix of views on our makeshift editorial board. As the editorial writer, I try to make a convincing case for the candidate, regardless of how I intend to vote. Either way, sometimes it is a challenge to do justice to the candidates and their campaigns.
O’Sullivan was comfortable, as I was, with not endorsing in the presidential race, but rather to focus on our niche as the local paper and stick with the congressional and state legislative races for the districts representing most of our readers.
I think a newspaper’s editorial page should be a place where residents can turn for an informed opinion about candidates and issues, whether or not you agree with the conclusions. It’s a responsibility I do not take lightly.
I took special pains with the editorial against the proposed change in city government. We didn’t decide on the position until the day before it went to press. I read the entire proposal carefully, consulted with people in and out of the active circles for and against, read many thoughtful comments both for and against, and applied my firsthand experience and knowledge of how City Hall works – or should work. I had to shrug and laugh at an online comment saying the paper’s editorial position was based on where its revenue comes from. That has never come up, and it just plain isn’t the case.
As for the people who get involved in elections and campaigns: I have a lot of respect for people who invest their time and energy, and sometimes their money, for a cause or a candidate they believe in. The same goes for most of the people I’ve met who run for office. Public service is an honorable endeavor.
As for news coverage, every year I wish we could have done more with the elections that we did. If only our four reporters had nothing else to write about. Still, I think our reporters did a good job with the legislative races letting readers know who’s running and what they stand for.
Speaking of candidates and position, we should all thank the Saratoga Springs League of Women Voters for their leadership in setting up voter forums and putting together the written guide that formed the basis of The Saratogian’s special section on Sunday.
I also want to acknowledge Editors Betsy DeMars and Paul Tackett, who added several hours to their already long workweeks to get the Voter Guide pages together for The Saratogian’s print edition.
Besides telling you about the candidates, we also tried to let you know about the election disticts, all of which have been redrawn. Most Saratogian readers are no longer part of the district of the congressman and assemblyman who represents them at the moment.
Check out our voter guide, the league’s voter information, and the state and county Board of Elections websites if you’re not sure what district you’re in.
And then get out and vote.