When to use the word alleged? Some simple rules

One of the most difficult things to get right in news journalism is the correct use of the word alleged.

An example from an article on the Facebook page of a 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 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 to that version of the sentence, and what about that “apparently”?

Let’s go through the mental steps…

These can be applied whenever you don’t know what do about using the word alleged (or allege, or allegation).

1. What does alleged mean anyway? The Oxford Dictionary definition says when something has been alleged it has been “said, without proof, to have taken place or to have a specified illegal or undesirable quality”.

2. Figure out what the allegation actually is: 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 the part of the sentence that explains what happened, like this: A taxi driver allegedly hit a woman. The allegation is NOT that he is a taxi driver!

3. Understand the reasons for using the word alleged: 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. 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 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.

4. Other complications: Our example sentence provides another layer of complexity. How can something be an allegation when there is a video of the event? That’s proof, so there no claim being made, surely? He did hit the woman? Go back to the legal way of thinking in point three above: 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 don’t know everything about what happened.

The bottom line: any reportage of any event is subject to later scrutiny. Apply clear thinking and caution  now.

Read more: Journalism ‘legals’: Renee’s golden rules

Main picture: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

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This article was originally published in 2017. It’s been updated as of September 2021.

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