When it comes to language choices, I try to decide matters based on accuracy.
This is why I want to call on all journalists and news organizations to stop using the term “alleged victim,” especially in stories about sexual abuse (almost the only type of stories where it appears).
It’s a blame-the-victim term we should banish forever from the journalism lexicon. You want to know why? Here’s the second definition of “alleged” at Dictionary.com:
doubtful; suspect; supposed
And here’s a fact about victims of sexual abuse: Their stories are almost always credible. So, in most cases, alleged victim is not only insensitive, but inaccurate.
(The first definition for alleged, “declared or stated to be as described; asserted,” is accurate, but if people could read a second definition as the meaning, we should look for a more accurate word.)
In a tweet this morning, Rick Mills made the point that we can’t simple say victim before a case is decided:
— Rick Mills (@RickMills2) October 26, 2012
I’ll grant that we need to listen to lawyers and avoid identifying a victim prematurely (not a problem in crimes such as murder or robbery, when it’s clear that crime happened and only the culprit is in doubt; in most sexual abuse cases, either one specific person did it or he didn’t, so identifying a victim kind of says he did).
But we also should avoid casting doubt on victims of crimes (and nearly all turn out to be true victims; even in cases where the defendant gets off, that’s often because of the difficulty of meeting the high reasonable-doubt burden, not because the person wasn’t a true victim).
We’re good with words. We should insist on accuracy and find an alternative. Here’s a neutral word that doesn’t say whether someone is telling the truth or not, but identifies that person as the source of an allegation: accuser.
Michael Gold questioned that on Twitter:
— Michael Gold (@migold) October 26, 2012
I don’t think accuser is negative. Here’s the definition:
a person who accuses, especially in a court of law
It’s one word instead of two and journalists should write tight. It’s neutral and it’s accurate, especially in a criminal case. The only case I can imagine where it would not be accurate in a sexual abuse case would be the rare case where the person identified as the victim is unable or unwilling to make the accusation, but police made the charge (or others publicly accused someone) based on physical evidence or eyewitness accounts. In those cases, we should use a longer neutral description as I did in the italicized phrase in the previous sentence.
This discussion was prompted by an otherwise-outstanding (and horrifying) story in the Washington Post in which the term was used to describe a swimmer whose coach paid $150,000 to a swimmer’s family under a non-disclosure agreement after the girl’s parents read about her sexual relationship with the coach, starting when she was 13. The story was published in July, but came to my attention today in a tweet by Lizzie O’Leary (the coach was charged Thursday):
If you swam competitively in DC/MD/VA in the 80′s, this will shock the hell out of you. washingtonpost.com/sports/olympic…
— Lizzie O’Leary (@lizzieohreally) October 26, 2012
I wouldn’t pick on this outstanding story (I will invite the author, Amy Shipley, to respond; update: I emailed her at the address listed on the Post website and it bounced. Also can’t find her on some social media, though I’ll keep looking. If you know her, please forward this link) if this wasn’t a common practice in journalism. I got 116,000 hits when I Googled “Jerry Sandusky” and “alleged victim.” In my reporting career I wrote dozens of stories, maybe more than a hundred, about sexual abuse. I know you can avoid that term and report on these difficult cases.
A final note: Don’t start whining “political correctness” about this. That’s a name-calling phrase people use in an attempt to shut down discussion and skew arguments in their favor. This is about accuracy and if you don’t care about accuracy, I don’t care what you have to say. If you think alleged victim is accurate, I’ll be glad to have an argument without calling names and we can agree to disagree if neither of us persuades the other.
Update: Thanks to Cynthia Parkhill for a thoughtful response to this post, calling on her personal experience.