Using Police Lingo In Your News Coverage Can Be Harmful

Using Police Lingo
In Your News Coverage
Can Be Harmful

Written by Lois Lane
🕒 July 23, 2020

Amid calls for action against police brutality, journalists may find themselves writing a lot of stories about police policy, encounters between police and citizens, and protests involving law enforcement.

In communicating with law enforcement, reporters will receive press releases and statements from their local agencies. These documents will include terminology — police lingo — that needs to be unpacked for readers.

A non-profit media watch-dog group, called FAIR, tracks biases in reporting.

Biases may appear in articles unintentionally if a reporter copies the press release.

Check out this article from FAIR, on the issue of media bias toward law enforcement. It points out seven key ways police lingo infiltrates news reporting.

One of those is “officer-involved shooting.” This term is obviously used to describe a situation where an officer has discharged his or her weapon. That phrase acquits the officer in question of committing any crime. If it were a random man involved in a shooting, you’d probably write a headline like, “Chicago man shoots and kills woman at park.”

To remove bias from articles about shootings that involve an officer, it’s best to write what you know happened. So instead of, “Man dies during officer involved shooting at Fairfield mall,” a more objective headline would be, “Officer shoots and kills man during standoff at Fairfield mall.” The latter headline automatically gives the reader more context, and compels them to read further.

After George Floyd died under the knee of a Minnesota officer, the words “carotid hold” began making headlines. A carotid hold is really a headlock. However, the hyper-technical term can confuse readers and obscure your reporting about a police officer’s misuse of deadly force.

“Juvenile,” is also used frequently in press releases from police when describing a situation that involves a minor.

As you may already know, age is not necessarily as important in describing an incident that involves an adult. However, a story could have dramatically different implications if the subject is 17 versus 9-years-old.

If authorities won’t release the age of the person involved, get creative. Ask if the subject is older or younger than 13-years-old. With that information, you can choose whether to use “child” or “teenager” in your headline. Those terms add a bit more clarity for the reader.

Finally, the use of a suspect’s description while covering a story can be discriminatory. Especially when law enforcement says it’s looking for a, “black man in his 30s with a medium build.” You probably know someone that fits that description, and you know he wasn’t involved in the story you’re covering.

According to standards set by the Society of Professional Journalists, a suspect’s description should only be used if it includes hyper-specific details. For example, “an Asian man who is 5’9’’ tall, weighing 160 lbs, black hair and a tattoo on his left cheek.”

Reporting simple characteristics in an article about a serious crime is irresponsible.

Doing that can lead the public to react in dramatic ways that could put innocent people at risk of harassment or worse.

Ask yourself when reporting whether the description released by police is enough. Could you pick this person out of a crowd or are they describing a general demographic?

The terms we use while reporting can seriously impact the way people view a certain situation involving law enforcement. Our words can actually harm minority groups, who already experience discrimination on a daily basis.

In addition to consulting with your editor, talk about this with the people of color in your life. And always refer to SPJ’s ethics guide to ensure unbiased reporting.

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