“Alleged” is a funny word in journalism. Writers and editors believe, superstitiously, that it will confer legal protection on them. It doesn’t. If you write that X is an alleged child molester, it is going to matter a great deal who is doing the alleging. Is X charged with the crime? Is there public accusation of some sort? Police report? This matters, because any halfway indecent reporter can go out into the street and find a raving lunatic to allege anything about anyone. But if I write that somebody I don’t like is an alleged embezzler or an alleged neo-Nazi, and the only people doing the alleging are me and some random person with no special knowledge, then “alleged” won’t save me in court.
So I laughed a little when reporters writing about a shooting in my hometown—a shooting caught on video — described William Kyle Carruth as the “alleged shooter” of Chad Read. My friends at the New York Post ran a sequence of video captures of the incident, with the first caption describing Carruth’s “alleged shooting” of Read. Alleged shooting? The second one read: “Footage shows Kyle Carruth pulling the trigger and shooting Chad Read.” The third: “Kyle Carruth proceeds to lay down his rifle after shooting Chad Read.” The fourth: “Footage shows a wounded Chad Read laying on the ground after being shot by Kyle Carruth.”
That first “alleged” is looking a little lonely, and a little silly.
There are variations, too: The local newspaper, the magnificently named Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, described Carruth as “the man suspected of shooting” read. But no one has suggested that there is any question about whether Carruth shot the other guy. The question is whether it was a criminal act. We know who shot whom — no alleging necessary.
Weirdly, Lubbock seems to specialize in murders caught on video. In another case, 26-year-old Anthony Brad Resendez, who has been charged with murder, was described in the local paper as an “alleged shooter” after another incident that was recorded on video. In this case, too, there wasn’t any question about who shot whom, only a question about whether it was murder.
But our friends at NPR have outdone the usual print journalese, with Lakshmi Singh reporting today that police had seized an “alleged firearm” after an awful shooting. I think we can probably say with some confidence that the gun-looking thing that police identified as a gun at the scene of a shooting is, in fact, a firearm, rather than hedge our bets with “alleged firearm.” If it turns out that the gun-looking thing taken from the scene of the horrific shooting wasn’t a gun at all but a tactical tuna-fish sandwich, I will be very interested to read about it.