Friday, December 02, 2005

That's why we have the rule

Court acquits accused abusers
6 people convicted of pedophilia despite false accusations, errors
PARIS -- A Paris appeals court overturned the pedophilia convictions of six people Thursday, in a case the French justice minister called a "disaster" in which they had been falsely accused and jailed for up to three years.

Let's see. The convictions are overturned; the justice minister calls the case a disaster and apologizes to the defendants. Shouldn't the hed call them "acquitted abusers"?

Right. If it hasn't sunk in yet, whether the hed says "accused abusers" or "acquitted abusers," it's declaring them some kind of "abusers." (drug? child? self? who knows?) When the case is still open, that's unfair and openly slanted*; if you want to work for the prosecutor's office, get a law degree and apply to the prosecutor's office. When the convictions are overturned, it's all that and libelous too.

The deck deserves a moment's attention too. This might be the first case in recorded history in which defendants were convicted "despite" false accusations and procedural errors. Start by dropping the "people" (on the sensible grounds that that's what pedophilia charges are filed against). Try something on the order of "Top official apologizes to 6 falsely accused of pedophilia." It's not one you'd submit to a hed contest, but considering that the original gets almost nothing right but the number, anything's an improvement.

* Yes, in case you were wondering, this applies to local stories that refer to a suspect as an "accused killer." Why wouldn't it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If someone's charged in a court of law with murder, then he or she is an accused killer. Accused means something. There's a difference between a killer (no modifier) and an accused killer (notice the adjective accused). It's not libel if the truth is that a charge of murder's been filed.

12:30 AM, December 04, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

The short answer: What is he (I'll stick with the masc pronoun, if that's OK) after he's acquitted: An acquitted killer?

The longer answer is that adjectives do indeed mean something:
"The blue-eyed killer" -- the killer who has blue eyes
"The overcooked meat" -- the meat that was overcooked
"The accused persons" -- the persons (I prefer "people," but this is from the OED, which unlike Webster lists "accused" as an adj) who have been accused
So what kind of killer is he?

Granted, participial modifiers can mean different things depending on where they're placed. "Free verse, so called because its meter and rhyme are irregular" isn't the same thing as "So-called free verse." Even preposed participles can mean different things:
"Smith, a so-called man of God" (Smith has a church and a divinity degree, but I consider his teachings ungodly)
"Smith, a so-called man of God" (Smith is a rug salesman posing as a preacher)
The problem isn't with multiple meanings; it's with the belief that one of them can go away by magic.

For "accused killer" to mean "person formally charged in a killing" (again, I have yet to find any documentation for that) and not "killer who is accused of something," we have to take a Humpty-Dumpty approach: When I write it, it means what I want it to. It has only its figurative meaning, not its literal meaning. I don't think there's support for that in how language works, and obviously I think it's a bad idea journalistically.

The point isn't settled there, either. Some good newspapers have no qualms about "accused killer" (e.g. the WashPost); some reject it (the NYT, tho as with anything else that stylebooks forbid, it's easy to find violations). I don't think we can at all say there's consensus among journalists that "accused" has a particular tormented legal meaning to the exclusion of the plain-and-simple one it so clearly carries.

The only reason we have constructions like this one is melodrama: Us against the bad guys. It's like a Fox reporter interviewing the police chief: "Are we gonna get this guy?" There's always space to do it the right way, and for a medium that on its better days claims to stick up for the Little Guy against the system, no excuse I can think of for not insisting on doing so.

That make sense? I'll be happy to continue the discussion, but if it goes on much longer, you're going to have to come down to the library and help with some coding...

1:22 PM, December 04, 2005  

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