Review Tips for Writing About Crime


These are things we keep in mind when reviewing a crime story.

accuser: Avoid using the word accuser (except in a direct quote) since it implies blame placed on the victim; alleged victim (though imperfect) is a better choice, but if possible, try to use more precise language.

alleged: Wow, we see this one many. Although it is legally advised in headings and specific instances in running text, we try to avoid repetition. Instead of preceding everything with allegedattribute descriptions of crimes to victims or police reports, using verbs like noted or phrases like “according to police documents”.

bail: When a defendant posts bail, he pays the court an amount ordered by the judge to be released from prison pending trial. Often, defendants pay commercial bonding agents (avoid surety guarantor) a non-refundable fee (10% to 20%) to cover the full amount for them, e.g., “Derek Chauvin posted bond on $1 million bail and was released pending trial”.

body: Use the possessive when referring to a person’s body: “Searchers found Gabby Petito’s body”; “The FBI has confirmed that human remains found at a Florida wildlife preserve belong to the man suspected of killing his fiancée.”

child pornography: Although you may find this term in legal fees, avoid this term; “pornography” implies consent. Use child sexual exploitation material rather.

district attorney’s office: Lowercase in all cases – e.g. LA County District Attorney’s Office (the District Attorney’s Office is OK on the second reference). Also lowercase district attorney unless the title precedes a name, for example, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

Walnut: Use drowned when a person dies by suffocation in water or another liquid; if a person survives, say that he almost drowned and were victims of an attempted drowning (similarly, was drowned means someone caused the death).

proof: Evidence can be circumstantial and/or direct. Direct evidence includes eyewitness accounts, confessions, or weapons used in a crime; circumstantial evidence relies on inferences, including crime scene fingerprints and blood splatters, testimony that, for example, they saw the accused covered in blood, etc. Most criminal convictions are based on circumstantial evidence.

first degree: Draw a hyphen as a modifier before a noun, for example, first degree murdercorn accused of first degree murder. Second degree murder charges may suggest a lack of premediation and/or an extreme level of disregard for human life.

Gun violence: BuzzFeed News provides the following context for most stories about gun violence, including mass shootings, with current data replacing bold text: the American Public Health Association says gun violence in the United States is a public health crisis. It is one of the leading causes of premature death in the country, responsible for more than 38,000 deaths per year. From this dateat least this number of people have died from gun violence this year, according to data from the Gun Violence Archives.

hate crime: never hyphenated; those convicted of hate crimes – those motivated by biases based on race, religion, sexual orientation or other grounds – often face harsher sentences.

detained: Do not use detained, sex offender, paroledWhere intern apart from the cited material. Opt for wording that includes “person” or “persons”, for example, incarcerated/imprisoned people, people in jail/prison. Use formerly incarcerated person in the place of ex-convict. For more information, see “The Language Project” from the Marshall Project.

prison against prison: Do not use these terms interchangeably, per access point. Jail is the place where the accused are confined while awaiting trial (see bail) or serving sentences for misdemeanors. Jail refers to penitentiaries and correctional facilities where most people are incarcerated for felony convictions. (See incarcerated people.)

murder against murder: Use the verb and noun forms of to kill unless referring to specific murder charges; does not describe a death as a murder until an accused has been convicted.

looters, pillage: By AP: “Apply the word looters carefully and specifically to those who engage in looting, do not overdo it and avoid labeling and stigmatizing broader communities, groups or all protesters. Word looters applied to large groups has had racial connotations in the past. … In any case, it is important to explain in detail the actions and the context.

mass shootings: Usually designated as such when four or more people are killed or injured, not including the perpetrator. If the shooter also dies, do not include his death when listing the number of people killed – for example, “Four people were killed, as well as the shooter” not “Five people died in the shooting.”

In most cases, do not use a shooter’s name in a title, dek, or opening paragraphs of a story. Likewise, do not use their photo as the main image, thumbnails, shares and social platforms. Use good judgment every time. When identifying a shooting suspect, include their middle initial if known. (See also Gun violence.)

not guilty: A defendant who has been found not guilty cannot be retried for the same crime, nor can the verdict be appealed.

involving an officer, involving the police: Do not use this vague, passive wording to describe shootings or other forms of police violence. Be specific and use the active construction, for example, “The policeman shot the black motorist.” Question police stories rather than reporting them as facts, and provide as much context as possible.

police officer: Use this gender neutral term, not police officer Where policewoman. When this title precedes a name, lowercase police and capitalize officer: “Federal agents say police officer Karol Chwiesiuk stormed the Capitol with thousands of others on January 6.”

theft against burglary: Always use flight when force or intimidation is used in the act of theft; burglary refers to illegally entering a building to steal something or commit another crime. (AP points out that in broader, non-legal contexts, flight can also be used when a victim was not present: “His house was broken into while he was away. “)

Sheriff’s Offices and Police Departments: Sheriffs are usually elected, and sheriff’s offices are an extension of a county government; county law enforcement officers are called sheriff’s deputies. In contrast, chiefs of police are usually appointed and direct municipal police departments, overseeing police officers of various ranks.

kill, killed: Avoid, unless you are reporting from within the Old Testament.

suspect: Avoid designating someone as a suspect before law enforcement has identified them as such. Use suspected when reporting criminal actions and actors, which can lead to confusion as events unfold – e.g., “the alleged shooter fled the building”, not “the shooter fled the building “.

Tasers: Follow AP advice on this brand. Use the generic stun gun if the mark is uncertain (e.g. “They fired a stun gun”). Don’t use verbs like Tasers apart from direct quotes; when quoted, use lowercase: taser, Tasers, to taste.

minor: Since this term indicates a legal age for certain privileges, never use it to describe a sex crime – for example, instead of sex trafficking of minors Where trafficking in underage girls and boysuse child sex trafficking Where trafficking of young girls and boys rather.

v.: In criminal and civil cases, use v. in the place of vs.for example, The People v. Robert Durst.

weapons: Some examples of PA: a 9 mm pistol, a .22 caliber rifle; an AR-style semi-automatic rifle with a 30-round magazine; a 105 mm anti-aircraft gun; .45 Caliber Colt Revolver, Ammunition .45 Colt; a 12 gauge shotgun, a .410 shotgun; M1 rifle, an M16 rifle; a Browning .50 caliber machine gun; a .357 Magnum, a .44 Magnum; a .45 caliber revolver; Saturday night special; a semi-automatic rifle, a semi-automatic weapon, a semi-automatic pistol. Firearm is an acceptable term for any firearm. (See also Gun violence, mass shootings.)

X, Y and Z: If you don’t do X, Y and Z, you could go to jail. We don’t make the rules.


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