Concerning the word ‘alleged’

Legals are a remarkably tricky, case-by-case area of journalism. That’s why I’m usually loathe to give any in-depth advice on them. I don’t feel comfortable about bumping against the line of what we can legally print. In fact, I don’t think it’s safe for any reporter or editor to get too comfortable in this area. A little bit of caution with legal aspects of a story or headline can save a lot of damage.

But I broke out of my comfort zone and replied when a Facebook friend asked a question.

She asked:

Journalism people: I can’t remember the rule – When you’re writing a story about an elaborate crime by one person, do you have to put “alleged” before everything he or she did, or can you just put it at the beginning and then go into it? (and David Wylie, don’t tell me not to use alleged :)

Here is the answer I posted.

Source your info meticulously. Don’t convict anyone who hasn’t been convicted in court, and be clear in the story that the person has not yet been convicted. If there’s something you’re unsure of, check with a senior editor or cut it out of the copy. Police quotes are not privileged sources of information. Court documents and testimony are privileged. And again, check specifics with a senior editor. You can use ‘alleged’ in the story to make clear these are accusations the suspect is facing, but why not just use the word ‘accused’ instead? My main beef with the word ‘alleged’ is that it’s used too often to justify printing something that we otherwise would not. The CP Style Guide had a good section on legals that will probably help a lot. But even the writers of the guide insist on getting advice from a senior editor or lawyer whenever you’re unsure. That’s the best advice I can give: If you’re unsure, check with an editor or lawyer!

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