Tuesday, February 17, 2004

It Doesn't Work That Way

TV and radio news does this all the time, and I can't stand it. Newspapers do it nearly as much. And the whole matter comes down to simple reading comprehension.

What am I blathering about?

"The accused killer." "The alleged rapist." "The accused terrorists."

None of these constructions should be used in a self-respecting newspaper. All of them use "accused" or "alleged" as a fig leaf -- but that fig leaf doesn't cover anything. If you use the phrase, you are calling someone a killer, rapist, or terrorist. The fig leaf words try desperately to make it seem otherwise, but you have already convicted the person or people involved.

Writers can fix the problem simply and easily. "The suspect, who is accused of killing." "The man alleged to have raped." "The men accused of terrorism." Sure, these constructions take up more space. But they allow for a crucial distinction by separating the people involved and the acts they are accused of committing.

Anchors on radio and TV news programs use the incorrect constructions all the time. I'm sure they defend the wording by saying "it sounds better." Well, it might sound better to say that the president transformed into a dragon and tried to eat the Democrats in Congress. It might sound better to say Martha Stewart was discovered to be an android from the distant future. It might sound better to say Elvis Presley writes this blog.

That doesn't make it true.