July 18, 2004

Journalists' alleged hedges

In the U.S., land of innocent-until-proven-guilty, both police and journalists describing infractions of the law are famously cautious in the way they attribute responsibility; "allegedly" and "reportedly" and similar hedges are peppered though their reports, sometimes hilariously.

And now, in the Police Blotter section of the Palo Alto Daily News -- I am a great fan -- on 7/17/04 (p. 17), I see exactly two items for Mountain View, both brief, one hedged ("A car was reportedly burglarized.") , the other not ("A car was stolen."). What's up here?

A long time ago, Chuck Fillmore noted a newspaper report in which someone was "charged with allegedly" committing some infraction. Chuck observed wryly that if that's what the fellow was charged with, then he was surely guilty.

In a somewhat different vein: I've seen numerous reports of some potentially felonious event, like an assault or a drive-by shooting, in which it is said that "the alleged perpetrator/assailant fled the scene". We're talking about an unidentified -- in fact, for the moment, unidentfiable -- person here, so it's not that anyone's rights are being protected. The hedge is just cautious icing on the journalistic cake. But it does have the side effect of inducing some doubt on the reader's part that the event took place as described: there's a whole lot of alleging going on, after all.

Which seems to be the effect of the variable use of "reportedly" in the Mountain View blotter items. I doubt that either the cops or the PADN intended this subtlety, but there it is.

At least in this particular issue of the PADN, some other cities and towns are more consistent in the way they hedge. The city of Menlo Park has three items, all with "reportedly": "Tools were reportedly taken from a car." "A bike was reportedly stolen." "A car stereo was reportedly taken." These are literally reports, what citizens told the police. The police didn't observe the events, but were told about them.

In the town of Atherton, there were some situations the police actually observed and others they were told about, and the blotter consistently distinguishes these. Of the first type: "A resident needed help getting a bird out of the house." "A man in his fifties was sitting in a silver Mercedes Benz ML with a teenage girl..." (The police talked to the man. Note the inclusion of narratively irrelevant but nevertheless fascinating details -- a hallmark of the Atherton blotter style.) "Three teens were walking up and down the street, looking lost..." (The police talked to the teens, who hailed from Arkansas and had gotten off the Caltrain at the wrong station.) Of the second type: "A resident reported what sounded like an accident..." "A resident reported that their dog had possibly injured a baby raccoon."

But for Palo Alto and Los Altos, as for Mountain View, the blotter items are not so scrupulous. In Palo Alto, a color printer "was taken", but "Thieves reportedly stole two couches" and "A... woman was arrested for allegedly shoplifting at Nordstroms" and "A burglar allegedly smashed a car window and stole a laptop computer, cell phone and pens." In all four cases, the cops didn't witness the events (though in the last one, they got to view consequences of the event, namely the smashed car window); nevertheless, the first report isn't hedged. In three other cases, the police didn't see the original event but did get to see the consequences, and these reports aren't hedged: a man and a woman "got into a non-injury accident" and so did two women, and "A trash dumpster filled with cardboard was lit on fire..." Meanwhile, over in Los Altos, "A car was burglarized" (no hedge), "A man was allegedly sitting in a... car exposing himself" (hedged, and rightly so: by the time the cops got there, the alleged flasher was gone), and "Someone was allegedly drunk in public" (hedged, but we're not told whether that's because the cops didn't see this person, or because drunkenness hadn't been established by the time the item was submitted for publication, or because the police reporter was just being cautious).

The bottom line: Police and journalists are, I allege, often inconsistent in their hedges. If they used hedges randomly, then readers could just ignore them. But there's enough of a pattern -- and one that makes sense -- that it's hard for a careful reader not to read unintended inferences into these reports. Caveat lector.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 18, 2004 01:16 PM