The alleged accused suspected suspect is in custody
I'm very glad he's in custody. But I'm not commenting on the case itself, I'm commenting on the news coverage.
Yesterday on the radio I heard the newsman refer to Brian Nichols, the guy who murdered three people at an Atlanta courthouse in front of a bunch of horrified witnesses, as the "alleged" killer. Today, watching both CNN and Fox News announce the good news that he's been captured, there it was again, "alleged" and "suspect."
If this particular set of circumstances isn't enough to allow us to refer to him as a killer and not a suspect, I don't know what would be. But language has become so neutered, and journalists so hesitant, that this sort of careful weasel language has become commonplace.
Commonplace? Yes. I checked. You can check, too, if you're interested--I won't bore you by going through the all details, but they're there. Typical was yesterday's Boston Globe article: "A huge manhunt swung into motion across the Southeast yesterday as officers searched for a rape suspect accused of overpowering a sheriff's deputy in an Atlanta courthouse and then using her gun to kill a judge, a court stenographer, and a second sheriff's deputy who had chased the alleged assailant into the street." It's true that Nichols is a rape suspect (although, somehow, I'm starting to believe the guy just might be a tad guilty of that crime, too). But he's certainly not just accused of overpowering a sheriff's deputy, nor did the second sheriff's deputy chase the alleged assailant. By that time the guy was very much an actual assailant.
The New York Times and LA Times exhibited similar back-and-forth confusion. But this is most definitely not just about the liberal press; not at all. The wording is pervasive. The NY Post's lead article today is headlined "Police capture Atlanta slayings suspect," and its first line begins, "A man accused of killing three people at a courthouse..."
Why do these writers bend over backwards to avoid stating that Nichols murdered these people, when the fact is not in dispute? Is it simply habit? Is it fear of legal proceedings against the journalist for false accusations, as I suspect? What gives?
I did some research into the subject, but all I could find online was this eminently sensible set of guidelines for radio reporters, which discourages the overuse of hedgey words such as "alleged" and suggests the use of phrases such as "witnesses say" or "police say." Sounds simple, doesn't it? This is a solution to the problem that makes sense to me, protecting both the "suspects" and protecting the journalists. These phrases are in fact used intermittently in these articles, but they don't seem to be used anywhere near as consistently as common sense and the guidelines would suggest they should be.
Another thing. All of us probably wondered, when we heard the news of the murders, why Nichols wasn't handcuffed as a security measure as he was going into the courtroom. Turns out that he was not allowed to be handcuffed in order to protect him from looking bad in front of the jurors and thus prejudicing them against him. It would appear to me that a defendant who had already been caught going into court with hidden knives, as was true of Nichols, should be considered to have waived that right. But maybe that's just me.
Well, as I said, I'm very glad he's in custody. It must have been frightening to have been anywhere near the Atlanta area yesterday.