That term is suspect: When to use the word and when to avoid.

By now most of you know we have a cliché list of words and phrases you just should not use.  “Allegedly” is one of the very worst, and we explained how to get around it.  Now let’s talk about another very overused, and obviously misunderstood term: “suspect.”

By definition “suspect” means: “to think (a person) guilty without having proof.”  It is a term police, lawyers and judges use.  Viewers get the essence of it, quite possibly more than most newsies.  I say that because when you watch an a-block in most newsrooms around the country, you hear “suspect” being used, in a way it should not, constantly.

Here’s a common example, when describing a convenience store robbery with surveillance video. “Here you see the masked suspects approaching the counter with guns and demanding cash from the register.” Um, no.  “Here you see the robbers pointing guns at the cashier.”  The people with the guns, who then take handfuls of cash from the register are not “suspects.” They are the people who did it.  Police may not know their names yet but, you can see in the video, they are the “robbers.” The people in the video are guilty, the video shows proof. You see them committing the criminal act.

Now here’s what to do, if the person is not wearing a mask.  As we explained in “Getting around allegedly” if you see the person doing it and police confirm that’s what happened, simply attribute it.  “Police say you are watching a man rob this store.”  “Suspect” is not going to help you here. The man is seen holding the gun.  State the facts.  Attribute to police.

Inexperienced writers, if you are unsure, exercise caution.  These concepts take a while to grasp.  Remember, you must attribute.  Words like “suspect” do not really protect you.  Saying for example, “Police call Joe Schmo a suspect.” can still create problems.  You can say police have identified a suspect and not show a face or say a name.  Remember, unless the person is a public figure, the name is less important to viewers than the fact investigators are moving forward and possibly solving the crime.  The safest bet, is to wait to say a name until there are charges.  Once a person is arrested, they are no longer simply a suspect.  So saying “Suspect Joe Schmo is charged with.” is not a protection.  The term suspect, has to be used clearly, not as a crutch phrase.