Sunday, November 29, 2009

Identification: How to get it wrong

Tell us about those suspects, Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

There are two suspects, one male and one black male, reported.

So in Fox World (you can attribute it to the local affiliate all you like, but when you put it on the Web site, you own it too), there are two kinds of males: regular men and black men? Just thought we'd clear that up for you.

It's not very hard to do this stuff right -- or at least to do it better than abysmally wrong. (To be fair, Fox has now updated its story to say "one white male and one black male," though what relevance that lone bit of information has for the national audience remains, erm, unclear at best.) Readers can't peek into your soul and figure out what you mean. All they can go on is what you say.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, be fair. I'm sure there are Hispanic and Arab and Asian men, too.

2:04 PM, November 29, 2009  
Blogger John Cowan said...

I suppose, he said doubtfully, that there are conditions of observation that would leave a witness certain of the sex of both perpetrators, but be able to identify the race of one but not the other. In any case, the text now speaks simply of "one male suspect", which I suspect was the real story all along.

This leads me to another point which is almost always screwed up, it seems to me. When reporting witness testimony, stories should speak not of the suspect but of the perpetrator, criminal, shooter, robber, mugger, or other such term. If I say I was robbed by a little old lady with red hair, a journalist should report that the perpetrator was a red-haired senior of the female persuasion. If someone, say Joan B. Alfonso, is suspected in this crime, the story can then properly say that the suspect has red hair and is 75 years old.

Unfortunately, though the story says that police are searching for a suspect, I expect they do not actually have a suspect in mind, but are in fact searching for one male perpetrator. Searching for a suspect is a very different activity from searching for a perpetrator: in the first case, you try going to his house, talking to his friends, and so on; in the second case, you interview witnesses, look at CCTV camera footage, and so on.

Saying suspect for perpetrator is, I suppose, a well-intentioned effort to fend off lawsuits. But as long as the witness does not name or otherwise clearly identify the perpetrator ("I was shot by the sheriff, but I was not shot by the deputy", e.g.), I think this concern is misplaced. What happened to the victim was done by the criminal, not by a suspect.

I could go on: if someone is suspected, they are a suspect, not an "alleged suspect". But let's try to get this right first.

3:05 PM, November 29, 2009  

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