Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood last week, was indicted on Thursday. Most news stories covering the incident—including those on Slate—refer to Hasan as the “alleged,” “accused,” or “suspected” killer, even though several eyewitnesses have fingered Hasan and there are no other suspects. Why can’t newspapers drop all these modifiers and just go with killer?
They can, but they usually don’t out of deference to the judicial system. In a criminal case, of course, the defendant is presumed innocent, and prejudgment in the media could bias the jury pool. Any publication that chose to identify Hasan as the killer would be immune to libel claims, since the statement would clearly have been made in good faith. But reporters traditionally hedge until the legal system delivers its final verdict. Some news stories attribute conclusions to public officials so they don’t seem like statements of fact. (“Prosecutors claim” can be a handy phrase.) The Associated Press Stylebook goes so far as to recommend “John Jones, accused of the slaying” over “accused slayer John Jones,” because the latter more strongly suggests prejudgment.
Things can get a little muddy when a suspect seems unlikely to face trial—because he’s dead, for example, or hiding out. In those cases, newspapers have to make a judgment based on how much of the story they have been able to verify. The decision is usually made by a senior copy editor or the managing editor, sometimes in consultation with lawyers.
Because news outlets make these calls on a case-by-case basis, published descriptions often vary. Just within the past few weeks, the New York Times referred to Mohammed Atta as the “leader of the 9/11 hijackers,” while Reuters called him the “suspected September 11 hijack ringleader.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provides an interesting case study, because he has been held for years without trial. Many reporters have been referring to him as an al-Qaida mastermind or the “chief plotter of the September 11th attacks.” (They may be relying, in part, on the 9/11 Commission Report [PDF], which does not hedge on KSM’s involvement, or his own admission to Al Jazeera that he was responsible.) But today’s stories about his transfer to New York for trial almost all use “alleged” or some variant.
Obscure cases, which may escape the notice of lawyers and senior editors, tend to receive even more scattershot treatment. On Saturday, police found the bodies of a Texas man and his family in their home. Some outlets immediately called it a murder suicide, while others used the “officials claim” phrasing.
Any newspaper that wanted to call Hasan the killer could do so without fear of legal repercussions, but to describe him as a murderer might be slightly different. Murder has legal significance, unlike shooter or killer; murder is, by definition, the unlawful killing of a person—and only a court can make that judgment. If Hasan were eventually exonerated, he might be able to win a libel claim by showing that the newspaper called him something they knew him not to be: a convicted criminal. The more the phrase sounds like legalese, the more dangerous it becomes for the news outlet. So you’ll often see people described as pirates even before trial, but an arsonist would almost always be “suspected” or “alleged” until his trial was over.
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Explainer thanks Randall P. Bezanson of the University of Iowa College of Law, Theodore L. Glasser of Stanford University, and Joan Konner and Richard C. Wald of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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