I use the term “police-involved” to describe police incidents that are investigated by the Special Investigations Unit.
I do so to not judge fault.
I’m reconsidering this terminology after listening to Craig Martin, co-director of the International and Comparative Law Centre at the Washburn University School of Law.
Mr. Martin argues, in a piece published on The Huffington Post:
Compounding this distortion is the use of the passive voice in the detailed account of these incidents. When articles or news reports go on to state that the person “died” in the context of an “officer involved shooting,” they imply or leave an impression of indeterminacy as to cause. Reports of death or disaster in the passive voice insinuate that the event was a result of some natural cause or inevitable chain of events. The victim in the shooting did not mysteriously die, he was killed, and there was a specific agent and cause of his violent death. To say that he died in this passive voice is to disguise both the cause and agency of the killing, and is thus misleading. Consider the difference in tone and implication of the sentence “A policeman shot and killed John Doe,” as compared to “John Doe died in an officer-involved shooting.”
Now, to be clear, this has absolutely nothing to do with justification. Many police shootings are justified. Many may not be. There are arguments to be made about the legal standards in place for justification. But none of that is relevant to the language used to report the basic facts about these shootings. Some may wonder whether the media’s use of language reflects efforts to be “objective” or “neutral” on the issue of legal culpability for the shooting. But this is wrong. Whether it was justified or not, the police shot and killed a person, and any uncertainty over the legal or moral basis for that act ought not to impact on how the fact itself is reported.
I strive for clear and plain language in my practice of journalism.
A fire is a fire, as I say. I don’t use terms such as blaze or inferno as synonyms for fire. I use adjectives to describe the fire.
Why? Because clear language is important especially when much of my communication is done 140 characters at a time.
Is using “police-involved shooting” instead of “police shooting” contrary to my practice practice of using direct and clear language? Yes.
I have a responsibility to use language that is not prejudicial and the common use of “police-involved” by other media may create the impression that I’m making a judgement on the justification of the shooting.
I’m going to weight these factors and make a decision before the next time I write about police shooting incident.
I’m weight towards “police shooting” and making clear in my writing the laws governing police use-of-force.
Why not use a police officer shot and killed John Doe?