“Alleged” has become perhaps the most overworked and misused word in the American lexicon. No longer used just to protect the rights of an accused when referring to a crime, it has become so ubiquitous that it is often used even when commenting about someone who has actually been convicted of or confessed to committing a serious crime, such as rape or murder.
The attempted terrorist bombing of the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and the statements by the Obama administration, including President Barack Obama himself, highlight the degree to which political correctness has overrun our culture: “A person was detained by customs at Detroit Metro Airport on Friday following Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s alleged attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, according to a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”
It was an “alleged attack” notwithstanding the fact that the man seriously burned himself in the act and was clearly attempting to blow up the airplane as it was landing.
To illustrate just how silly this looks on closer inspection, consider the following examples:
Shortly after the man who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was taken into custody, TV news accounts were referring to him as the “alleged” gunman. Never mind that he was overpowered and disarmed at the scene of the crime.
When Army Maj. Nidal Hassan shot more than 30 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, he was wounded by a police officer who happened to be a witness, but news reports after the incident frequently referred to Hassan as the “alleged” shooter.
The idea, of course, is to protect the rights of the accused, but referring to clearly guilty criminals as “alleged” doesn’t really protect anyone. No one is fooled. Given the blanket news coverage that high-profile trials usually involve, the excessive use of the word “alleged” seems like overkill to me.
My question is, does using the word “alleged” in every reference to a crime really protect the rights of a suspect or the accused, especially in those instances in which the criminal has openly confessed?
I seriously doubt that it changes the opinion of the public, who are discerning enough to know that the use of the word “alleged” doesn’t really protect anyone’s rights. Chances are, even the most fair-minded observers form their opinion based on the circumstances involved, notwithstanding the media’s efforts to appear fair and unbiased.
A quick Google search turned up the following examples of the use of the word “allegedly” in the news:
» “$50K Bail Set for Woman Who Allegedly Put Baby in Trash” — The Seattle Times
» “Jasmine Marie Ritchey, of South Bend in Pacific County, allegedly hid the baby boy under the plastic liner of a garbage can.”
» “Allegedly Intoxicated Teens Crash Car Into Tree” — Patch.com
» “Army Private Arrested After C4 Allegedly Found in Luggage” — CNN
» “... an unruly passenger allegedly karate-chops air marshal” — CNN
» “CIA Allegedly Bought Flawed Software for Attacks” — InSecurity, news.cnet.com
» “The agency allegedly bought flawed targeting software for drone missile attacks — software it knew was faulty, and that could misdirect ...”
» “David Prosser Allegedly Grabbed Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice” — Huffingtonpost.com
» “Wisconsin state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser allegedly grabbed one of his colleagues around the neck prior to the court’s recent ...”
» “Nicki Minaj Allegedly Attacked In Hotel Fight” — Tmz.com
» “N.C. Man Allegedly Robs Bank of $1 to Get Health Care in Jail” — ABCnews.com
» “Police are still looking for the man who walked up to some parked cars in south Seattle and shot four people, (allegedly) killing one and wounding ...” — July 14, 2011
These are just some of the examples that illustrate how often the word “allegedly” is inappropriately used in media reports. It makes me wonder if anyone actually does anything.
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.