November 14, 2006

Idea: Use “apparent” when it’s not simply “alleged.”

In America, a person is considered innocent by the law until he is proven guilty. When the media cover a case where someone has been accused of a crime but not convicted, they follow the same guideline. And they should. If the news calls someone an arsonist, for example, but he is later determined to be innocent, the news could get in trouble for defamation or slander. So the word “alleged” is used.

Dictionary definition of alleged: “Asserted without proof or before proving.”

That’s great. The media shouldn’t go around convicting people before they’ve had their day in court. But what if there is proof, but the legal process hasn’t yet taken its course? What if the suspect was caught red-handed? Sure, there might be circumstances not yet known that would shine a completely different light on the situation. But when there is known evidence, maybe “alleged” isn’t the right word. I propose “apparent.”

Apparent vs AllegedDictionary definition of apparent: “manifest as true on the basis of evidence that may or may not be factually valid.”

Let’s look at some stories in the news. In Orange County, Florida police have arrested a man for running an “alleged pot-growing operation.” News footage shows a dozen or so large marijuana plants found in his home. Now, sure, I suppose it could turn out that they’re plastic plants and nobody realized it. Or that someone else put them there to frame him. But given the evidence on hand, I think it’s weak to call this simply an alleged pot-growing operation. It looks like an apparent pot-growing operation to me. This acknowledges that the evidence still may be shown to be invalid, but it calls the situation what it actually is.

In Elmira, New York, an “alleged bank robber” is on the loose. A man approached two people making a deposit at an ATM, pushed them to the ground, and took their money. And he hasn’t been caught. Sure, it’s possible the victims made the whole thing up (the article doesn’t say whether or not the ATM’s camera caught all the action). But it seems to me that there is an apparent bank robber on the loose.

[Note: This paragraph not for the squeamish] And in Hong Kong, tragedy struck a woman who had previously reported domestic violence. This time, she didn’t survive. According to reports, she called emergency services, screaming that there had been a murder, and then she got cut off. Police arrived in her home to find her and two others hacked to death. The article headline calls this an “alleged murder.” Surely it’s safe to call it an “apparent murder,” isn’t it?

I understand the need to err on the side of caution. But the word “alleged” has an actual meaning. It’s not just a catch-all word to keep you out of trouble. There is another word that is just as cautious, and is often more appropriate. Apparently, not everyone sees it that way.


The examples you give seem cut and dry. What about slightly less cut and dry examples. And slightly less than that. Where do we stop using ‘apparent’ and start using ‘alleged’? Where’s the line?

I agree that “alleged” is tossed around far too often; in school, we called such examples “condom journalism.” Strongly consider changing your source for news whenever you see headlines like “Did flat-sharing spark alleged murders?” (Another headline from that site: “I am gonna get you I am gonna get you,” on a story about Britney Spears.)

But I disagree that “apparent” is “just as cautious.” American Heritage’s defintions for “apparent” are:

1. Readily seen; visible.
2. Readily understood; obvious.
3. Appearing as such but not necessarily so.

So it could be used to mean “obvious” — or not. “Alleged” doesn’t have that ambiguity.

I think the bigger problem is a lack of editing, which you can plainly see in your examples. Well-edited publications wouldn’t use “alleged bank robber” OR “apparent bank robber,” especially if that person didn’t even (“allegedly”!) rob a bank. It was people at an ATM.

The beginning of that story is awful: “Monday morning, an alleged bank robber is on the loose and New York state police say they need your help to track him down.” Why not: “Police say that two people were robbed outside an ATM on Monday and that they need your help finding the suspect”? Instead of “alleged murders,” why not just “slayings”? There are far, far betters options than both “alleged” and “apparent.”

Your argument fails to hold water with this line: “But what if there is proof, but the legal process hasn’t yet taken its course?”

It is not the “media’s” job to make those types of judgements. Using that type of method would throw all journalistic objectivity out the window. You wouldn’t have consistency from station to station or from paper to paper.

Another reason why a reporter wouldn’t use “apparent” is that regardless of what the dictionary says, people interpret it as: “We don’t actually know for sure, but this is our best guess.”

Oh, and Ehren - “slayings” editorializes the situation even more. The less of the reporter’s bias in the story, the better it is.

You make a good point. In fact, I have heard “apparent” used in this context in the local news.

Wow Tim, put the coffee down and step away from the computer.

you’re allegedly making a good point.

What about Purported?

haha @ edex :] i was completely agreeing with you- i think news reporter scripts are dumb- until i read the second & third comments. im kind of still on the side that more discretion should be used in word choice though, like what the second one says about just writing better articles.

I think you’ve got it wrong. In the examples you’ve given, the crimes have clearly been committed (robbery, murder). What is alleged is that the arrestee did it. There was not “an alleged murder” (the police found the victims had been hacked to death after all) but rather “an alleged murderer”.

Since no hypotheses, claims or theories can be “proven”, this is likely true, however it is stupid to dismiss any hypothesis without evidence that proves it false.