by Ashley Austrew
What is a possible hate crime? A possible sexual assault? A possible terrorist attack?
Crime-related news is often reported in the media using tentative language—like the word possible—that makes it seem as if there is room for doubt as to whether or not a crime was actually committed. But in many instances, either through video, photos, or the victim’s own words and evidence, it is obvious to everyone that a crime was definitely committed.
So, why do journalists keep using the word possible?
For many years, a common word journalists used in crime reporting was allege. To allege means “to assert something without proof,” especially when a person has been accused of or arrested for, but not legally convicted of, some crime.
But, the Columbia Journalism Review stated in 2009 that allege was being misused. As the review explains, alleged is, in this context, synonymous with suspected, and “calling someone ‘an alleged thief’ is all but saying ‘we know you did it.'”
The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, moreover, cautions that journalists should avoid any suggestion that they are personally making an allegation or accusation. For this reason, the stylebook instructs journalists to instead use words like apparent, ostensible, or reputed. Possible is also a similar qualifier in this vein, and it likely evolved from those instructions.
What does possible mean?
Journalists use a qualifier like possible for information that is unconfirmed or claims that are unproven. Possible comes from the Latin possibilis, “that may be done,” in turn from the verb posse, “to be able.” Recorded in English by the late 1300s, possible more generally describes something “that may or can be, exist, happen, or be done.”
But, the adjective has evolved to imply that something may or may not be true—and that’s why many people find possible problematic when it’s used in regard to crimes.
When actor Jussie Smollet, for instance, was hospitalized in late January 2019, many people were outraged when media outlets reported on the attack as a “possible hate crime.”
Prayers for healing for Jussie.
Vice…do better. Y’all really tried it with this headline. It is INSANE that journalists are more afraid to call the most obvious display of racism ‘racism.’ https://t.co/yITxlJ7cTV
— Darien LaBeach (@dlabeach) January 30, 2019
Smollet said attackers yelled racist and homophobic slurs as they beat him, poured chemicals on him, and wrapped a noose around his neck, as if lynching him. Many headlines that used the word possible, though, included quotation marks because they were directly quoting police, who said they were investigating the attack as a possible hate crime.
Still, reporters often use possible to describe acts of crime even when not quoting police, such as when reporting in early January 2019 that a woman in a vegetative state gave birth at an Arizona healthcare facility near the end of December 2018. Many outlets reported the woman was a victim of a “possible sexual assault.”
— The Hill (@thehill) January 5, 2019
Libel is to blame
The main reason that journalists use language like possible is to avoid being sued for libel. Libel is “defamation by written or printed words or photos.” (Slander is the spoken equivalent.) Writing that someone committed a crime, for instance, when they didn’t, is bad because such false statements can damage a person’s reputation—and even their livelihood.
Libel is something journalists must always be cautious to avoid. When journalists are reporting on a crime, they often are stating what has appeared in an official report or has been told to them by police. Unless a person has been formally convicted of a crime, a journalist cannot take an accusation and state it as undisputed fact. As First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson Jr. wrote for the Freedom Forum Institute in 2002, “individuals possess a right not to be subjected to falsehoods that impugn their character.”
Nevertheless, there are many who feel that journalists’ use of language like possible is too timid or passive, that is, it’s not actively or aggressively calling out wrongdoing. This complaint is especially directed incidents of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexual violence.
In the case of the victim who gave birth while in a vegetative state, the woman was physically incapable of consenting to sexual contact. How else could she have given birth, then, if someone didn’t rape her? To say she was “possibly raped” or “possibly sexually assaulted” seems to cast doubt on what the victim experienced rather than signaling, as is usually intended, that many details of the case were still unknown.
Similarly, some outlets wrote that Smollet was a victim of a “racially charged” attack rather than saying it was outright racist. For many, this language came across as unwillingness to call out racist violence.
Journalists, can we PLEASE BAN the following terms:
"Racially-charged" is racist.
"Alt-right" is white supremacist.
"Gender bias" is sexism.
"Anti-Muslim" is Islamophobic.
There's no "possible hate crime" when people of color/LGBTQ are being attacked by folks who use slurs.
— Ernest Owens (@MrErnestOwens) January 30, 2019
How do we stop downplaying racism, violence, and hatred?
Journalists may use terms like racially charged and alt-right because they fear that calling someone racist could constitute libel, which is itself a crime.
But, the AP itself has taken the position that terms like alt-right should not be used in reporting because “it is meant as a euphemism to disguise racist aims.” The AP Stylebook instructs:
…when writing on extreme groups, be precise and provide evidence to support the characterization. Report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.
And so, while journalists need to rely on words like possible in crime reporting so they don’t publish false or unestablished information, it is critically important in today’s culture, amid the threat of misinformation and growing respect for marginalized identities, to assess when our language qualifies information—and when it diminishes a victim’s credibility or the severity of a crime. We should correct and clarify that language when necessary.
Having an objective and impartial media is indispensable, but it should never come at the expense of recognizing racism and other forms of violence and hatred. Not for what they possibly are, but what they really are.
Ashley Austrew is a freelance writer from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has been published at Cosmopolitan, Scary Mommy, Scholastic, and other outlets.
For more by Ashley, read: “Why Can’t Women Swear?” | “Is It Time For All Couples To Use The Term “Partner”? | “Is “Crude” The Right Word To Use To Describe Someone’s Language?” | “What Does It Mean To Be Electable?” | “Has The Word ‘Expert’ Lost Its Meaning In 2019?”