Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Alleged in his own time

It must be a laugh a minute at the Fount of Knowledge across town:

Alleged drunken driver slams into pole
Police arrested a Columbia man early yesterday on suspicion of driving while intoxicated after he allegedly struck a utility pole with his vehicle near downtown Columbia.

There are lots of reasons well-edited newspapers don't use the adjective "alleged" and the adverb "allegedly" in crime stories. There's that pesky fairness issue. There's the grammar thing (what's the "alleged killer" become after the not-guilty verdict -- an "acquitted killer"?). Then there's the whole wiring-diagram bit: If you just sort of smear the Magic Allegedly Ointment around without regard to where it goes, you're liable to get gunk all over your shirt and not end up with any on the gaping wound that needs it.

In the example given, two distinct offenses are being alleged (that's a verb, not an adj, if you're scoring along at home). One is utility-pole-slamming; the second is DWI. The hed writer apparently forgot that neither has been proved. "Alleged drunken driver slams into pole" gets at the second offense but declares the suspect guilty of the first (which is what the "allegedly" in the lede covers).

Moral: Potentially libelous allegations are like land mines. It doesn't do any good to avoid one if you tap-dance straight onto the next.

While we're at it? If you need an example of a case in which the active voice is wordier and duller than the passive, this is it. Cop ledes are born to be in the passive voice.


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