Terms and arguments used and made in courts can often have a negative impact for the victims and can re-victimize them or their families. They also clutter up your writing. Search for every day words to replace them to improve your coverage.
- Alleged: When used correctly this word prevents legal action against your publication but when used incorrectly it implies you don’t believe the victim. Use “Police allege the victim was …” instead of “the alleged victim was …” OR “The woman says she was walking home when she was assaulted.” Instead of “the woman was walking home when she was allegedly assaulted.” Attributing the comments or claims to the person who says them is sufficient to avoid legal challenges.
- Claims: This word is very rarely necessary in reporting. It will be used by both Crown and defence lawyers. Simply use “said.”
- Police jargon: Words like accosted, altercation, combative, extricated, etc., prevent proper telling of the story and all have everyday replacements. Instead, use words like bothered, aggressive, fought and pulled to freedom. Clear language provides a clearer understanding of events.
- Please note: If the victim in the case is living ask them if they would prefer to be identified as a victim or as a survivor of the violence.
There are also a few things to keep in mind as you are reporting on a case.
- Bias: It’s very easy to feel swayed by the arguments made each day, so it’s critical to weigh the body of the evidence in your reporting. You can cover one side primarily, but ensure you use direct quotes and when paraphrasing, avoid the use of inflammatory words. Always include the fact that the other side gets to make arguments or has made arguments. Report the facts and attribute all arguments to the person making them. For example: “Crown lawyer Jane Doe said police reports show the woman was home alone ….” Or “The Crown alleges …” Or “During cross-examination, defence lawyer John Doe suggested what actually happened was…” If you’re covering a defence-heavy day, finish the report with, “The Crown entered its arguments yesterday, essentially saying …” And vice versa. Or “The defence will have a chance to respond with questions tomorrow.” This not only helps protect the integrity of the report and of the victim but also helps you provide a forward angle to your story.
- Detail: Going into too much detail can subject the victim/survivor to further harm. Be specific but not gratuitous and include only necessary information. For example, you can say that a person was raped or sexually assaulted, instead of penetrated or fondled. It’s not necessary to be explicit about the assault. What is important is the violation of the victim’s sexual integrity by another person. For example: If the description of the assault includes graphic details, take them out. Court description: “the woman was penetrated vaginally with the end of a broom.” Your report: “the woman was raped.” The violation is traumatic no matter what the tool used to do it.
- Timing: If you only cover a decision, or are dropped into a case sporadically, check your facts before reporting them. Read other reputable sources and ask the Crown to make sure your facts are straight. Watch for unintended bias if you are only hearing one side of the arguments.