One of the most apparently difficult things to get right in news journalism is the correct use of the word alleged.
A Facebook post this morning from a local radio station illustrates the point:
“A shocking video has emerged online of an alleged taxi driver hitting a woman in a taxi at a CBD rank.”
See that alleged? It’s in the wrong place (and in fact is not even really needed) – and the sentence is just clumsy. Here’s what I would have done:
“A shocking online video apparently showing a taxi driver hitting a woman has …. (insert whatever it has done: got X views? caused outrage? been used to lay a charge?).”
So how did I get there? Let’s go through the mental steps needed (and which can be applied whenever you don’t know what do about using alleged):
What is the allegation? Go back to the most basic journalistic question: what happened? Here, a man hit a woman. When you have the event correct in your head, insert the alleged in that part of the sentence, like this: A taxi driver allegedly hit a woman. The allegation is NOT that he is a taxi driver!
That’s all you really need to know. But we now have a new dimension complicating this. How can something be an allegation when there is a video of the event? There is proof of the event, so why do we even need to use the word alleged?
My advice is always: Go back to the legal reason for using the word alleged. Put as simply as I can: when something bad has happened, it is likely that it will turn into a court case. Even if it doesn’t, the report is stating that a person (or persons) has (or have) done something bad. If it turns out that the person did not do anything bad, then the report and, by extension, the publication in which it was carried, are open to legal challenge.
So… publications use the word alleged to indicate that they know that this “something bad” may not have happened, or that the person in question may not have done it. They are thus trying to be fair to the person who may or may not have done something bad – and hoping to protect themselves from trouble further down the line.
Now, apply that reasoning to the video in this example. Yes, there is a video showing a man hitting a woman. That is indisputable. But we know nothing else… the video could have been staged; it might have happened a long time ago; someone may be filming selectively to try to frame someone else, and so on.
So, to get round the clumsy use of alleged (when we know our readers will be saying “but it happened! I saw it!”), the word apparently comes into play. We are indicating that we know the jury is out on this.
The bottom line: any reportage of any event is subject to later scrutiny. Apply clear thinking now.
- I have not named the radio station as this mistake gets made by many publications, all the time. I see no reason to single out one for ridicule.