Our Copy Desk’s Guidelines On Crime (Reporting On It, Not Doing It)

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The past year has given us “all crime, all the time” vibes, with a staggering number of high-profile criminal trials. (Court closures at the beginning of the pandemic created a backlog.) The defendants prosecuted include R. Kelly, Derek Chauvin, Kyle Rittenhouse, Ghislaine Maxwell, the police officer who killed Daunte Wright, the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, Josh Duggar, Elizabeth Holmes, and Robert Durst.

The stakes are high in crime reporting, and our job at the BuzzFeed News copy desk is to scour our stories for language that, if we get it wrong, can have serious consequences. For instance, we want to make sure phrasing doesn’t ascribe guilt to someone who was misidentified or before a person has had a chance to defend themselves in court.

And we owe it to the victims to make sure their names are spelled correctly. This means not relying on police reports but instead checking social media, statements from family members, and public records.

There are so many different language and style aspects of crime and punishment that this newsletter started to naturally take shape as a glossary. (Maybe because our forthcoming revamp of the BuzzFeed Style Guide will be formatted in alphabetical order — stay tuned!)

NobleDame / Via Tenor.com

These are things we keep in mind when copyediting any story about crime.

accuser: Avoid using the word accuser (except in a direct quote) since it implies a blame placed on the victim; alleged victim (though not perfect) is a better choice, but when possible, try to use more precise language.

alleged: Whew, we see this one a lot. While it is legally advisable in headlines and specific instances in running text, we try to avoid repetition. Instead of prefacing everything with alleged, attribute descriptions of crimes to victims or police reports, using verbs like said or phrases like “according to police documents.”

bail/bond: When a defendant posts bail, they are paying the court a judge-ordered sum to be released from jail while awaiting trial. Often, defendants pay commercial bond agents (avoid the gendered bail bondsman) a nonrefundable fee (10%–20%) to cover the entire sum for them, e.g., “Derek Chauvin posted bail on a $1 million bond and was released pending his trial.”

body: Use the possessive when referring to a person’s corpse: “Searchers found Gabby Petito’s body”; “The FBI confirmed that human remains found in a Florida wildlife area belonged to the man suspected of killing his fiancé.”

child porn: Although you might find this phrase in legal charges, avoid this term; “pornography” implies consent. Use child sexual abuse material instead.

district attorney’s office: Lowercase in all instances — e.g., LA County district attorney’s office (the DA’s office is OK on second reference). Also lowercase district attorney unless the title precedes a noun, e.g., Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

drown: Use drowned when a person dies by suffocation in water or other fluid; if a person survives, say they nearly drowned and were a victim of attempted drowning (similarly, was drowned means someone caused the death).

evidence: Evidence can be circumstantial and/or direct. Direct evidence includes eyewitness accounts, confessions, or weapons used in a crime; circumstantial evidence relies on inference, including crime scene fingerprints and blood splatter, witness testimony that, for example, they’d seen the defendant covered in blood, etc. Most criminal convictions are based on circumstantial evidence.

first degree: Hyphenate as a modifier before a noun, e.g., first-degree murder, but charged with murder in the first degree. Second-degree murder charges can suggest lack of premediation and/or extreme level of indifference for human life.

gun violence: BuzzFeed News provides the following context for most stories about gun violence, including mass shootings, with current data replacing the bolded text: The American Public Health Association says gun violence in the US is a public health crisis. It is a leading cause of premature death in the country, responsible for more than 38,000 deaths annually. As of this date, at least this number of people have died from gun violence this year, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive.

hate crime: Never hyphenated; people convicted of hate crimes — those motivated by prejudice on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, or other grounds — often face harsher penalties.

inmate: Do not use inmate, sex offender, parolee, or probationer outside of quoted material. Opt for phrasing that includes “person” or “people,” e.g., incarcerated/imprisoned people, people in prison/jail. Use formerly incarcerated person instead of ex-con. For more information, see “The Language Project” from the Marshall Project.

jail vs. prison: Do not use these terms interchangeably, per AP. Jail is where defendants are confined while awaiting trial (see bail) or serving misdemeanor sentences. Prison refers to penitentiaries and correctional facilities where most people are confined for felony convictions. (See incarcerated people.)

killing vs. murder: Use the verb and noun forms of kill unless referring to specific murder charges; do not describe a death as a murder until a defendant has been convicted.

looters, looting: Per AP: “Apply the word looters carefully and specifically to those who engage in looting, do not overuse, and avoid the labeling and the stigmatizing of larger communities, groups or all protesters. The word looters applied to large groups has carried racial overtones in the past. … In all cases, it is important to explain the actions and the context in detail.”

mass shootings: Usually designated as such when four or more people are killed or injured, not including the perpetrator. If the shooter also dies, do not include their death when reporting the number of people killed — e.g., “Four people were killed, along with the shooter” not “Five people died in the shooting.”

In most cases, do not use a shooter's name in a headline, dek, or opening paragraphs of a story. Similarly, do not use their photo as the primary image, thumbnails, and social shares and platforms. Use judgment each time. When identifying a shooting suspect, include their middle initial if known. (See also gun violence.)

not guilty: A defendant who has been found not guilty cannot be retried for the same crime, nor can the verdict be appealed.

officer-involved, police-involved: Do not use this vague and passive phrasing to describe shootings or other forms of police violence. Be specific and use active construction, e.g., “The police officer shot the Black motorist.” Question police accounts rather than reporting them as fact, and provide as much context as possible.

police officer: Use this gender-neutral term, not policeman or policewoman. When this title precedes a name, lowercase police and capitalize officer: “Federal agents said police Officer Karol Chwiesiuk stormed the Capitol with thousands of others on Jan. 6.”

robbery vs. burglary: Always use robbery when force or intimidation are used in the act of stealing; burglary refers to illegally entering a building to steal something or commit another crime. (AP points out that in wider, nonlegal contexts, robbery may also be used when a victim was not present: “His house was robbed while he was away.”)

sheriff’s offices and police departments: Sheriffs are typically elected, and sheriff’s offices are an extension of a county government; county law enforcement officers are called sheriff’s deputies. In contrast, police chiefs are usually appointed and head municipal police departments, overseeing police officers of various ranks.

slay, slain: Avoid, unless you’re reporting from within the Old Testament.

suspect: Avoid referring to someone as a suspect before law enforcement has identified them as such. Use suspected when reporting on criminal actions and actors, which can be confusing as events are unfolding — e.g., “the suspected shooter fled the building,” not “the shooter fled the building.”

Taser: Follow AP guidance on this trademark. Use the generic stun gun if the brand is uncertain (e.g., “They fired a stun gun”). Don’t use verbs like tasered outside of direct quotations; when quoted, use lowercase: tased, tasered, tasing.

underage: Since this term indicates a legal age for certain privileges, never use it to describe a sex crime — e.g., instead of underage sex trafficking or trafficking of underage girls and boys, use child sex trafficking or trafficking of young girls and boys instead.

v.: In criminal and civil court cases, use v. instead of vs., e.g., The People v. Robert Durst.

weapons: Some examples from AP: a 9 mm pistol, a .22-caliber rifle; an AR-style semi-automatic rifle with a 30-round magazine; a 105 mm anti-aircraft gun; Colt .45-caliber revolver, .45 Colt ammunition; a 12-gauge shotgun, a .410 shotgun; M1 rifle, an M16 rifle; a .50-caliber Browning machine gun; a .357 Magnum, a .44 Magnum; a .45-caliber revolver; a Saturday night special; a semi-automatic rifle, a semi-automatic weapon, a semi-automatic pistol. Gun is an acceptable term for any firearm. (See also gun violence, mass shootings.)

X, Y, and Z: If you fail to do X, Y, and Z, you might go to jail. We don’t make the rules.

What's the Word?

knoll (n.) (ˈnōl): a small round hill: mound. According to Merriam-Webster, the noun has been around since before the 12th century. It comes from the Middle English knol via Old English cnoll, and is akin to the Old Norse knollr, meaning “mountaintop.” On Jan. 24, it was the answer to the day’s Wordle puzzle. Many players didn’t get the answer in their six tries, drawing a lot of their ire. Others wished the losing players a speedy recovery from their loss. Google search results for the word “knoll” skyrocketed. Copy czar Benjamin Dreyer reminded writers to avoid describing just any natural landscape as a “grassy knoll,” which he calls “a distractingly potent term” given its inextricable association with the JFK assassination in 1963.

Used in a sentence: QAnon supporters gathered on the grassy knoll, where they believed the assassinated president’s son would be resurrected.

Used in a tweet:

What We’re Reading

And finally, a tweet:

Thumbnail image credit: D-Keine / Getty Images