In the Constitution, any suspect is innocent until found guilty by a court, even suspects who kneel for eight minutes on the throat of an unarmed, handcuffed person who is caught on video pleading to breathe, passing out, and dying. If the court hasn’t (yet) ruled that a death is homicide, then it’s not accurate to describe the death as a “murder” or to describe a person who has just been arrested, but not formally charged yet, as a “killer.”
Having said that, the “past exonerative voice” is a powerfully descriptive name for how the journalists who are trained to rely on official police reports can be complicit in distorting the truth when the human beings who write those documents choose to deploy specific grammatical structures designed to de-emphasize the choices made by officers who are “involved in shootings.” Such reports use words like “police-involved shooting” or “scuffle” in order and leave out details such as whether the person who was shot was the one who fired first or was unarmed with their hands up; whether the person who was shot was breaking down a door into an innocent person’s apartment, or was at home in bed and woken up in the middle of the night by armed intruders who were at the wrong address.
Here’s a good example of the kind of spin I’m talking about:
Liberal arts college teacher assaults member of alt-right group.
Pop culture satire is harmless, but this kind of linguistic manipulation is often done by the powerful in order to distort the truth.
“Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis tweeted Tuesday afternoon that 4 officers involved in the arrest of a man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee had been fired.” —NYT
That’s very biased, cop-friendly language.
It’s fair to note that the news is that 4 officers were fired; at this point in the story everyone already knows that one of them had kneeled on George Floyd’s neck until he passed out and died, so it’s fair to say that the 4 were “involved in an arrest” because not all of them were accused of keeling on him, and some might have stood by and watched instead of actually participating in subduing and arresting Floyd. Whoever posted this tweet also wanted to get in the date and the fact that the announcement came via Twitter, and that complicates things, because you don’t want to make it look like the officers were fired “on Twitter Thursday” or that Floyd was killed “on Twitter Thursday.”
More fair: “Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey announced the arrest of 4 officers charged with police misconduct after the death of a handcuffed man in their custody. The word came from the mayor’s Twitter account Thursday afternoon.”
When the news is still breaking, and an investigation is still underway, journalists can’t simply decide that the man who died was murdered, or even report that he suffocated. Journalists aren’t medical examiners, and news reporters are trained to report what credible officials say, not report their own guesswork.
Journalism also includes editorials and opinion, so of course a columnist can offer an opinion; but right now I’m focusing on the language typically used in the headlines of breaking news stories, posted by reporters who are in the middle of the story as it develops. (The reporters usually aren’t responsible for the phrasing of the headlines that spread on social media; they are too busy covering the next leg in the story, or they are off-duty after having filed their story and gone home.)
Any trained journalist, even when writing a personal column, would probably avoid using the word “murderer” to describe a suspect. Even when the suspect is a police officer who kneeled on the neck of a handcuffed man until the man stopped breathing and died. According to the US Constitution, everyone — even people in positions of power whose really bad decisions are caught on video — is innocent until found guilty in a court of law. If these 4 police officers haven’t been convicted of murder, it’s not the journalists’s prerogative to label them “killers.” If the investigation hasn’t yet determined that a particular death was a homicide, then there is no “murder” to report — and journalists don’t have a crystal ball that will let them peer into the future to discern whether the courts will or won’t convict any particular person.
When accusations of police corruption, public outcry, and an officer’s past history of misconduct are part of the story, then of course a good journalist will report that, too.
(And the bad cops and the white supremacists know this; that’s why they are often so hostile to journalists.)
Bearing in mind that not every journalist who uses “allegedly” is part of a conspiracy to support a racist justice system, here’s a good breakdown of the power of language, when it’s used by people in power to obscure wrongdoing.
The past exonerative tense transforms acts of police brutality against Black people into neutral events in which Black people have been accidentally harmed or killed as part of a vague incident where police were present-ish.
Examples of Usage
“Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis tweeted Tuesday afternoon that 4 officers involved in the arrest of a man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee had been fired.” (SOURCE)
This classic example of past exonerative tense muddles the events so convincingly that it seems that no one person is responsible for the killing of George Floyd, that the officers were chiefly involved with an arrest rather than a murder, and that knees are sentient, independent entities. —McSweeney’s