By Denise Tessier
It’s heartening to see when Albuquerque Journal readers are as sensitive to the meaning of words as journalists should be – and even more so when they take the time to point it out to the editors.
The Journal apparently received a barrage of letters and comments after it used the word “victim” to describe a carjacking suspect fatally shot by police, because on June 8 the Journal ran a rare “To Our Readers” explanation about its use of the term (no online link available), and then ran five letters to the editor on the topic June 9.
What led to the outrage was the top-of-page one headline, “Victim Pointed Gun at Officers” (June 6), the story of which described a carjacking suspect who was shot by three police officers after allegedly pointing a gun at them and refusing to raise his hands. The continuation headline on A2 was basically the same, shortened to “Victim Pointed Gun at Police” to fit the jump space, and the word victim was also used to describe the carjacker in the story text. (Sorry, no online link could be found.)
The follow-up on Page 1 the next day (June 7) repeated the lexicon, with “Shooting Victim Had Criminal History,” and again the jump headline on A5 repeated the refrain: “Shooting Victim Had a History.”
The explanation proffered by Journal Managing Editor Karen Moses in the Journal’s official response, “What Defines a Victim?” was technically correct: The word “victim” applies to anyone or anything harmed, killed or destroyed – regardless of blame or fault. (A house, for example, can be the victim of a tornado.)
What’s interesting is that readers felt the term did imply blame or fault.
It could be that this feeling was prompted by the fact that the Journal recently has run a number of stories about questionable use of deadly force by the Albuquerque Police Department. And so in this case, they might have been surprised by the use of the word “victim” when the deceased apparently wasn’t troubled or mentally ill, but appeared to be a bona fide bad guy. In fact, two APD stories along those lines appeared on Page One the same day Moses’ explanation appeared: Under a unifying large-font headline “APD Deadly Force Under Fire” were the two reports: “Judge Awards $4.25 Million in Wrongful Death Lawsuit” and “Police Chief Makes Tasers Mandatory.”
A corrected (online) version of “Shooting Victim Had a History” itself carried the information that between January 2010 and June 4 of this year there were 18 shootings by APD, 13 of them fatal.
So, it could be that readers of the “victim” headlines were irate because their expectations were not met. One writer even accused the Journal of being left-wing for using such a term, saying:
The victims in this case are the two citizens who faced an armed criminal and the brave police officers who were left with little choice but to defend themselves.
Maybe your staff writer needs to see the world for what it really is, and not through a pair of rose-colored glasses that lean decidedly to the left.
It is apparent, however, just by looking at the letter headlines that most of those who wrote to complain feel that the word “victim” simply doesn’t apply to alleged bad guys (“You Draw Down, You Lose Victim Status,” “Sorry, but We’re Not Feeling Sorry for Him”).
And they have a point. Journal editors were surprised at the reaction because their use of the term was correct, but when one consults a dictionary that gives examples of use of the word, Moses wrote:
. . .the victim is invariably a victim of a crime or a mishap or a calamity. There is an inference that the victim did little to bring on the harm.
With that in mind – and the luxury of hindsight – “suspect” would have been a better word given the facts in this case.
What’s interesting is that there was no similar outcry (that I’m aware of, anyway) when a Journal Page One headline May 21 announced: “Only 1 Year for Killing 7-Year-Old: Child-Abuse Conviction Overturned in DWI Death.” I’ve railed before against the use of the word “only” in virtually any journalistic reportage because it inherently expresses an opinion.
What’s interesting is that there was no complaint about use of the opinionated word (only), but there was with regard to the (arguably) non-judgmental “victim”.
Without making any judgment as to the justice of a term of one year, I’m asking readers to ponder: If the DWI headline had merely reported, for example, “’Year in Jail’ For Killing of 7-Year-Old”, the reader would be left with the term of sentence, and no opinion as to whether this sentence was too long or short. But by saying “only,” the reader is being told that this is short. (The case was that of a young woman who rear-ended a car while driving drunk, killing a 7-year-old and injuring a 5-year-old. She had already served one year of a 12-year sentence, and the rest was suspended. I use the phrase “Year in Jail” because it has the same letter count as “Only 1 Year” and therefore would have fit in the same space.)
Journalistically, it is OK to report that Second Judicial District Attorney Kari Brandenburg was disappointed in the sentence, but it is not OK for the headline writer to do so.
And because there was no outcry from readers, it’s likely they agreed with the Journal’s so-called assertion that “only” one year is too short. Usually, readers speak up when they disagree with something, and when they disagreed (with “victim”) they indeed spoke up.
Reporters and headline writers should leave it to readers to form their own opinions. And from the reaction to the victim stories, it’s obvious they will form opinions, and possibly even speak up. All true journalistic media — including the Journal — need to do is provide readers with the facts.