Why do journalists use “allegedly” when they report on obvious crimes captured on video?

Look at this picture. A guy in a uniform obviously has his hands around a kid’s neck. Why would Business Insider use the word “allegedly” to describe what seems like a pretty obvious assault?

If you are Young Sesame Chicken, what makes the Business Insider post worth sharing is the contrast between the mealy-mouthed headline and the powerful image.

Why don’t journalists just call it abuse? Why soften the report with “allegedly”? Are journalists in league with cops, protecting them from the consequences of their bad-apple violence?

Let’s think about this.

If for some reason you were a corrupt news reporter who wanted to make the cops look innocent, why on earth would you tweet out this particular still frame, which looks so damning, if your goal is to protect the accused cop?

What’s really going on here?

American journalists do their job within the context of the 6th Amendment presumption of innocence — placing the legal burden of proof on the prosecution.

That’s an important, fundamental principle of our legal system, and journalists are trained to respect it in their crime reporting. Everybody is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law.

Even if dramatic video footage looks like it caught the suspect red-handed, the American legal system places the burden of proof on the prosecution. Until and unless there’s a conviction to report, it’s correct to report only that a suspect is alleged to have committed a crime (that is, the suspect has been formally accused).

Here is how Business Insider described the two videos in the body of their story:

In one video from 2015, officer Steve Shaulis grabs a boy who is sitting in the office, puts his arm around the student’s neck, and eventually throws him to the ground. Principal Kevin Murray can be seen helping to hold the student down as Shaulis uses a Taser on him.

In the other video, filmed in April, Shaulis can be seen dragging a 14-year-old boy into the office and leading him into another room where he allegedly punched the student’s tooth out. The student was taken to the hospital, where his tooth was sewn back into place.

I haven’t watched the videos, but the story suggests the incident where the student lost the tooth happened off camera. If so, it would be perfectly accurate for a story about an ongoing investigation to describe the punching as “alleged.” If the case goes to trial, it would be up to a jury to decide whether the prosecution has proved the allegation, and the news would be that a suspect was convicted or acquitted.

Note the news report doesn’t say the officer allegedly grabbed the boy and threw him to the ground. The story factually reports that these things happened in the video. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of whether the video shows a crime, a news story can’t honestly report that a video shows a police officer committing a crime, unless the officer has already been convicted.

A defense attorney will no doubt argue that the officer’s actions were necessary to protect himself and the student, and if the jury accepts that argument, then from a legal standpoint it would be inaccurate, and negligent, for a news story to report that the video documents an officer committing the crime of child abuse.

Business Insider is a national publication, and doesn’t tend to follow Pittsburgh local crime stories that closely, so they are not likely to post updates as the story develops over the months and years that the court system typically takes. (As it happens, the principal, who was also the head football coach, resigned, and the school district settled a lawsuit filed by five Woodland Hills students.  A few years after that, Shaulis was still a police officer, and was again again sued for a different incident.)

Sharing a meme that questions a news story, without sharing a link to the news story itself, sets up a feedback loop where people who are already predisposed to believe “the media” sucks up to cops will share a meme that supports that belief, and when their like-minded friends see the meme, that will solidify their pre-existing belief.

The choice of this particular still frame for the Business Insider story and the neutral language of the headline, work together to present this story in context.

On a recent Martin Luther King day, a young man I know shared this picture, taken in 1956, when counter-demonstrators in Chicago became violent, and King suffered a head injury.

Dozens of our mutual Facebook friends reacted to and re-shared this image, speculating whether this white guy’s grandchildren are proud of him, and condemning “the Media” for pandering to white racists fears and prejudices.

What we see in the image is a white man with his hands on King’s head, and King in a very unnatural position, almost crawling on the ground.

We know that King suffered a minor injury that day.

Without knowing whether the man with his hands on King’s head was found guilty of assault, it’s irresponsible for a journalist to present this photo as capturing the moment MLK was assaulted, or describe the white man in the photo as committing the crime of assault.

Things are not always as they seem.

Look at the caption of this photo, which I found in the online archives of the Chicago Tribune. (If you don’t believe me, feel free to search for this caption yourself.)

Aides keep Martin Luther King Jr. down to protect against further attacks after he was hit by a rock Aug 5, 1956 in Chicago. (Chicago Tribune)

The white man in this picture was, according to the caption that originally ran with the picture, an aide who was protecting Martin Luther King — not one of his racist attackers.

Images that trigger our emotions, when taken out of context, can do a lot of damage. That’s why journalists are trained to use words like “allegedly” when reporting on crime.

Sharing a meme that suggests journalists are biased in favor of cops flies in the face of the many very real instances in which cops who object to being held accountable for their actions have targeted journalists. (See “Police are Attacking Journalists at Protests. We’re Suing.”)