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I allegedly don't understand the word "allegedly." Allegedly.
November 10, 2009 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I am confused as to the use of the word "allegedly" and why it is used outside of a strictly legal sense (in the media for example)? For instance, with this most recent shooting in Texas, there are obviously dozens of eye witnesses, only one suspect under consideration, no one is going to argue in court that someone else did it, so why on the news are the anchors still saying Mr. Hasan "allegedly" shot these people? It just seems weird...

I understand the term might be more relevant in a case of a burglary, or when there is only circumstantial evidence to tie a suspect to a crime, because then there is a doubt and if you straight out accuse someone and they are acquitted, then you might be liable to be sued. It seems in this case the only thing in doubt is the motivation or mental state of the accused (temporary insanity etc.), there is no real doubt that he actually did it...so why is everyone so noticeably still prefixing the crime with "allegedly?" Also, it seems the media are really selective with this term. If an investigative reporter uncovers something legally dubious about a company for instance, the headline would read "Documents reveal Company x laundered millions" you never see "Documents reveal Company x allegedly laundered millions." Unless I just am not noticing it. Can someone explain the technical issues around this word, when it is appropriate to use and when it is not?
posted by the foreground to Law & Government (38 answers total)
 
Remember the OJ Simpson trial? Remember how many people felt he was certainly guilty and there was no way he was going to be acquitted? Well, legally he didn't do it, and legally he could sue anyone who said he did for defamation. Trial by jury usually works but is often unpredictable. You never open your news agency up for a potential lawsuit. Your agency might win, but your odds of retaining your job would not be good.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:37 AM on November 10, 2009


He hasn't been proven guilty in a court of law. So the press uses "allegedly" because they want to continue the fiction that we don't know whether this guy is guilty or innocent.

It is, I allege, sloppy writing.
posted by dfriedman at 8:37 AM on November 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Can of Worms - let's just say nobody wants to stick their neck out and call a spade a spade for all kinds of reasons. Mostly political.
posted by watercarrier at 8:37 AM on November 10, 2009


Some people cite the case of Richard Jewell for the increase in "alleged" and "suspected" in news reports. I imagine for most news sources, it's just easier to stick the word in than to worry about multimillion dollar libel judgments.
posted by Partial Law at 8:40 AM on November 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


there are obviously dozens of eye witnesses, only one suspect under consideration, no one is going to argue in court that someone else did it,

Presumably, none of those eyewitnesses has actually talked to the paper, as they are under strict instructions not to discuss the matter with anyone, lest an inconsistency be used to impeach them on the stand (google "prior inconsistent statement.") Thus, all information regarding Hasan as the killer comes from the prosecution, and not from any eyewitnesses. Papers will have a policy regarding the use of a word like this which they apply strictly to each and every case, regardless of how obvious guilt seems. They ensure that they cannot be sued for defamation because of it.

In reality, none of us has ever met Mr. Hasan or the people he allegedly shot. We know only what the news tells us. The news organizations are very cognizant of that fact.

We do have a system of justice that presumes innocence.

Remember that whole OJ thing? The fact is, a jury of 12 people, who actually looked at the actual evidence, and knowing more about the case than anyone but the judge, the lawyers and OJ himself, came to the conclusion that the state could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that OJ committed that murder. Think of all of the people who run around stating with absolute certaintly that OJ did commit that murder, yet every fact they know comes from summaries and reporting. That jury sat in the box every day of the case and then sat around and talked about it for a long, long time. They actually sat across from the witnesses as they gave their testimony, as in feet from them. But a lot of people think they know better. They know nothing.

Now I'm not arguing OJ isn't guilty, just that I do not have the facts to make an accurate decision on the matter. And I'm suggesting that the newspapers usually take that fact into consideration when they write things down.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:42 AM on November 10, 2009 [10 favorites]


As live frogs points out, it's because it is being used in a legal sense. Often you'll hear it being used when talking about potential libel or defamation cases so as to repeat what is alleged, without stating so in a way that opens you up to a lawsuit.
posted by opsin at 8:43 AM on November 10, 2009


I think it's a pretty good standard to use "allegedly" in all situations prior to a conviction. "Everybody knows he did it" is probably a pretty dangerous precedent to set for convicting someone in the media.

Regarding the documents, in the first instance they're not necessarily accusing Company X of malfeasance, they're making a presumably factual statement about some documents they've seen. Just a guess.

Anyway, looking in Google news it seems that various papers are not necessarily using "alleged" in reference to the shooter. Example
posted by ghharr at 8:44 AM on November 10, 2009


As noted above, in the criminal context, generally a jury of one's peers determines what is fact and what is not. A thousand boy scouts could witness a purse snatching and unanimously swear that it was Mr. X who did it--but if a jury determines that Mr. X was innocent, their conclusion establishes fact. Mr. X did not steal the purse as a matter of law.

To add a different nuance on the above, however, the media will generally not use "allegedly" in your second example due to their direct knowledge of the "facts." Currently, we only know what the authorities have told us about a crime under investigation. If there happened to be a reporter on the scene, s/he would not say "I saw Hasan allegedly go on a rampage." In the investigative context, the media is not reporting a prosecution, but a set of facts of which they have personal knowledge.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:46 AM on November 10, 2009


Isn't he presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law? The court of public opinion is meaningless here, and may actually be harmful to a full investigation of the situation. I keep promoting this book but it really was eye-opening: Columbine.
posted by muddgirl at 8:46 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


In this case, the fear is not of a lawsuit and isn't even about judicial/political correctness, but more of the repercussions. No one will take any chances fearing retribution. riots, mayhem and revenge killing within the military and on the streets if they should happen to just come out and say *this guy is the killer because there were over 40 people who witnessed him shooting his gun*.
posted by watercarrier at 8:47 AM on November 10, 2009


If they drop the "allegedly," the probability of being wrong may be very very low, but the cost is very very high if they are wrong. Meanwhile, while the probability of being right is high, there is little to no benefit to correctly dropping the "allegedly." It's not as if some philanthropist is going to shower them with millions of dollars for dropping "allegedly," nor will it even significantly affect their ratings/circulation/etc.

Much the same reason I stop at stop signs on back country roads even at 3 a.m. when there don't appear to be any other cars on the roads for miles. While it's very unlikely I'd need to stop, the cost of being wrong can be very high and the benefit from successfully running the stop sign is very low.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:52 AM on November 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


This case is just a scaled-up and reported version of every other case. There exists a crime. Sufficient cause exists to charge someone with the crime. If you are charged with a crime, then the prosecutor has alleged that you committed it. (Allege has an interesting etymological history, but for our purposes we'll say it means "at law"--meaning, to bring a person to court for a crime.) The prosecutor has the state's authority to make allegations and attempt to prove them. The state has the people's authority to sit in judgment on individuals. So "the alleged shooter" is precisely correct.

I get nervous when people say "we all know he did it." That is certainly true at times, this one included. But since this is not always clear, we have devised a system to determine whether what "we all know" is in fact the truth.

The system can be cumbersome and irritating. But if it stops even one lynch mob from stringing up an innocent man, then it is worth the trouble.
posted by jefficator at 8:54 AM on November 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


"... why on the news are the anchors still saying Mr. Hasan "allegedly" shot these people?"

Plain and simple: because he's alleged (albeit by a great many potentially credible witnesses) to have done such a thing. The news, believe it or not and unlikely as it may seem, is reporting facts -- in this case that there are allegations against the guy. He's not convicted of the crime yet, though.

It is indeed about judicial correctness, not some irrational fear that convicting the guy in the news will start a riot.
posted by majick at 8:56 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I get nervous when people say "we all know he did it."

Lemme clarify that. I get nervous about this because it presumes that "we all" are an entity separate from our legal system. Experientially this is the case, but in fact the legal system is the body "we all" have given our authority to.
posted by jefficator at 8:56 AM on November 10, 2009


I think that news organizations figure that if they start dropping "allegedly" in clear-cut cases like this, they won't be able to know where to clearly draw the line in other cases that are less clear-cut, but still almost certain. Eventually, they will screw up, or they will be seen as making political or legal judgments that they shouldn't be, rather than simply stating facts. They are also upholding, rhetorically, the presumption of innocence, which is a principle worth reminding people of by using "allegedly."
posted by Dasein at 9:03 AM on November 10, 2009


Well, legally [OJ] didn't do it, and legally he could sue anyone who said he did for defamation.

OJ isn't so great an example -- as a public figure he'd have to show actual malice to win his suit.

Hasan presumably isn't a public figure, so he'd only have to show that the information told about him was false and defamatory.

And it would actually be pretty easy for a newscast to screw up and say something factually incorrect. For example, say a TV station says that he killed 13 people and wounded 30 others, the current count according to wikipedia. But it's entirely possible that some of those wounded and potentially one or more fatalities were actually shot by others attempting to kill Hasan. In which case, saying "Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 30 others" would be false; he might actually have killed 12 and wounded 23 others. Or they might say that Hasan shot some particular individual who it is later revealed was actually shot by someone attempting to kill Hasan, making their statement about Hasan false and defamatory.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:19 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


> It is, I allege, sloppy writing.

No it isn't. It's necessary for all the reasons people have given, and it's right because in this country, as muddgirl says, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Yes, even people we all "know" did it. You might be grateful for this one day.

> "Allegedly" is a nice sort of garbage adverb that I've heard people throw in just to try to sound smarter. They don't know the meaning of the word, and taking it out of their sentences doesn't change the meaning of what they are conveying. So, "allegedly" isn't necessary.

Oh for chrissake. Somebody doesn't kow what they're talking about, but it's not "people," it's you.
posted by languagehat at 9:23 AM on November 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


"Allegedly" is a nice sort of garbage adverb that I've heard people throw in just to try to sound smarter. They don't know the meaning of the word, and taking it out of their sentences doesn't change the meaning of what they are conveying. So, "allegedly" isn't necessary.

This seems like the sort of knee-jerk contrarianism that people throw in just to sound smarter, when they're talking about subjects of which they are ignorant. In any case, it's totally wrong.

If a reporter didn't add "allegedly" or make the allegation indirect somehow, by framing it in terms of what witnesses said or prosecutors charged, their editor or producer would add it in for them. As a rule, legitimate news organizations should not state that someone has committed a crime before they are convicted.
posted by grouse at 9:28 AM on November 10, 2009


I think that that's why even if a person confesses to a crime, until they are convicted and officially pronounced "guilty" the press will refer to them as "confessed shooter" instead of simply "shooter." Innocent until proven guilty.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:28 AM on November 10, 2009


For what it's worth, I had a journalism school teacher who was of the opinion that 'allegedly' is a terrible, lazy cop-out for journalists, and should never be used. He said the use of 'allegedly' was tantamount to admitting that you were printing something that couldn't be verified.

The alternative, as in cases like this, he said, was to report the facts, and only the facts:
investigators released his name and identified him as a person of interest in X crime, or :
prosecutors filed charges against so-and-so for X crime.

The reasoning there is: by limiting what actions/crimes you ascribe to the suspect, you more accurately report the facts and circumstances, and limit your reporting to only those facts that can be verified and ascribed to a source (thus nullifying any possibility of a successful libel case, since you've done due diligence in good faith, and reported only accurate facts).
posted by Eldritch at 9:28 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Because that's exactly what is happening here; other people are saying, or alleging, that the guy shot a bunch of people. They are using the word exactly how it's intended, and it's the most accurate way to say what happened. The newspaper is reporting what others are alleging to have occurred.
posted by spaltavian at 9:30 AM on November 10, 2009


But Eldritch, that would be ethical and responsible and not, you know, sensational and headline-grabbing.
posted by muddgirl at 9:32 AM on November 10, 2009


I am confused as to the use of the word "allegedly" and why it is used outside of a strictly legal sense (in the media for example)?

Actually I think what is confusing is that in the media example you give it is being used in a strictly legal sense, which differs from its ordinary meaning. The legal use is something to the effect of "the plaintiff in a particular trial has alleged that ..., and whether ... is true has yet to be determined by a trial." The ordinary meaning simply is "Someone has alleged that ..., and I (the speaker of the utterance) don't know myself whether it is true."
posted by advil at 9:34 AM on November 10, 2009


For what it's worth, I had a journalism school teacher who was of the opinion that 'allegedly' is a terrible, lazy cop-out for journalists, and should never be used. He said the use of 'allegedly' was tantamount to admitting that you were printing something that couldn't be verified.

My journalism teacher said the same thing, except that we should use it because if the alleged perpetrator was found innocent, and the paper had said he was guilty, the paper would be sued into oblivion. He hated the way it had devolved into a CYA mentality, but really, what other good way is there to say it?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:35 AM on November 10, 2009


Now that I'm remembering my newswriting and media law classes, I seem to remember that the big other reason you shouldn't use 'allegedly' is because it doesn't actual provide any protection against libel at all, regardless of what conventional wisdom and common use says. Adding 'allegedly' to the end of a libelous statement doesn't make it any less libelous, if I recall correctly (some hastily googled media law course notes back me up on this).

And, in a related manner, newspapers can't just interview some yahoo and let him libel it up, then protect themselves by claiming they were merely accurately reporting on his opinions. Repeating someone else's libel is libel, too.
posted by Eldritch at 9:42 AM on November 10, 2009


For instance, with this most recent shooting in Texas, there are obviously dozens of eye witnesses
In other words, there are dozens of people who allege to have witnessed the suspect shooting people.
posted by Flunkie at 9:43 AM on November 10, 2009


Well, legally he didn't do it, and legally he could sue anyone who said he did for defamation.

Except that he lost the civil trial. And wrote that confession novel. I think he'd have a hard time saying anyone has defamed his character more than he did himself.
posted by nomisxid at 9:46 AM on November 10, 2009


I'm an attorney and a litigator. I use that word all of the time because it has a very specific meaning.

As do many other "highbrow" words. The abandonment of useful words for the sake of appearing ordinary diminishes the language, impoverishes understanding, and condescends to all the "regular" people who actually can handle precise language without difficulty.
posted by bearwife at 9:54 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Allegedly" is a good demarcator to remind us that we're not supposed to try people in the court of public opinion, but in a neutral venue where facts can be weighed and decisions reached. Ultimately, it's not up to the reporter to verify that Maj. Hasan shot and killed the victims, so it's not a copout.

There are no bulletproof (sic) solutions to the problem. And anyway, "alleged" is not even that highbrow of a word.
posted by missouri_lawyer at 10:08 AM on November 10, 2009


[few comments removed - this is a question with an answer, this is not a "how do you feel about this word?" question, please do not feel that you need to answer if you do not know the answer. Please do not start derails. Please go to metatalk or email if any of this is confusing to you, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 10:13 AM on November 10, 2009


...so why on the news are the anchors still saying Mr. Hasan "allegedly" shot these people?

Bringing this back to the specifics of the Hasan situation, and quite apart from the use of "alleged" to denote the supposed actions an accused who has not been convicted, consider that Hasan probably did not shoot all of those people. A number of witnesses allege that he was a shooter, but apparently other people -- including, but not limited to the police officer who shot and was shot by Hasan -- were also firing. Most of the reporting I have read indicated that some unquantified portion of the injured were presumed (at least at the time) to have been caught up in the crossfire between Hasan and those firing back at him.

A certain number of people died, and a certain number of other people were injured; it is alleged by witness and 'the authorities' that Hasan was the spree shooter who initiated the mayhem at Ft. Hood; but, as of now, the allegations (in terms of the nature and number of charges) are actually unspecified. By using "alleged" with reference to the while incident, rather than to any of its component actions, writers may try to build in a hedge against uncertaintly. I don't think that's good writing -- to me, it sounds like an officious way of pulling the Fox News-esque "some (people) say..." / "some are saying" -- but there you have it.
posted by onshi at 10:21 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


err, "with reference to the whole incident". Sorry.
posted by onshi at 10:22 AM on November 10, 2009


Thanks for the great answers so far everyone. I suppose my main sense of confusion stems from the public nature of the crime, as opposed to OJ where there were actually no eye witnesses and an argument in court could be made that someone else did it. So if I understand correctly, because of legal ramifications/presumption of innocence, there is simply no way a media outlet would ever not use "alleged" before the fact is established by a jury?

Last example: what about when Mike Tyson bit off Holyfield's ear live on TV and in front of thousands of people in the audience...I can't remember if anything legal action actually came out of that or not, but would it still be expected of the media to refer to Tyson as "allegedly" assaulting Holyfield in that instance?

There just seems to be a willful distortion of reality with the use of some of these words, and I realize some people will argue "reality" is highly subjective...
posted by the foreground at 10:41 AM on November 10, 2009


Well, in the case of Mike Tyson's famous fight, the logic will go something like this.

Fact: Mike Tyson bit Holyfield's ear. That is a fact, and not alleged.
Alleged: That Mike Tyson assaulted Holyfield.

Mike Tyson allegedly assaulted Holyfield during the fight when Tyson bit Holyfield's ear.
posted by muddgirl at 10:45 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


The media is not an authority on legal matters. Besides, the amount of news stories I scoff at in general (because I'll happen to be previously acquainted with the particular topic) makes me a tad wary about all the rest of the things I read...

It's fine the way it is. *Something has happened* and *Concerned parties were found guilty and convicted of X* That's all I need.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 11:12 AM on November 10, 2009


I do not see a problem with the example you provided, though I agree with the posters who pointed out that it is lazy reporting. While the facts may seem obvious, until a trial takes place he is not legally guilty of the crime.

However, there are many misuses of "suspect" and "allegedly" in the media. For example, using "suspect" to refer to an unknown perpetrator, which makes no sense. Suspect refers to an actual person who is suspected of the crime. Allegedly is similarly misused. "The unknown man allegedly kicked the puppy and then ran away" is only correct if there is doubt whether the puppy was kicked. If that is not in question, then the unknown man definitely did kick the puppy, you just don't know who he is. If you think you have identified him, that person is a suspect until you prove it.
posted by Nothing at 11:15 AM on November 10, 2009


We are already starting to hear conflicting versions of what "we all knew" actually happened on the scene.
posted by grouse at 11:08 AM on November 12, 2009


FWIW, Slate's Explainer covered this very question today:
Why Is Maj. Nidal Hasan Still the "Alleged" Fort Hood Shooter?
posted by chrisamiller at 4:18 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


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