By Margaret Vuchiri-Alumai
The use of the words alleged and allegedly is so ubiquitous in news reports, particularly in stories about crime that some people have joked about declaring their use a crime in itself.
Before we declare journalists guilty of gross offenses against language, we should consider how the words are used and if it is justified. Take for instance these scenarios.
Scenario one: A media house reports that a public official paid a large amount of money to shadowy cartel of influential people, ostensibly to protect his job. The story gives a detailed account of the case, which on face value would make it believable. However, no authoritative quotes are provided and no comment is sought from the accused. The report only ‘validates’ the claims made by using a sprinkling of the words allegedly and alleged.
Scenario two: Someone is shot dead during riots to protest a forced eviction. Police officers were at the scene to oversee the exercise. Several news reports state that the victim was allegedly killed by the police.
Scenario three: At a political party news conference, some party members are presented to journalists with visible wounds and scars. Party officials say their members were tortured while in detention and the wounded narrate in detail what happened to them. A couple of stories about the news conference report this as a case of alleged torture against opposition politicians.
What is the appropriate language to use in each scenario? Behind the debate about these words lies the answer to this question and it is not just about semantics; it is about the precepts of good journalism.
A widely-accepted principle in using allegedly or alleged by the media is based on the presumption of innocence until the accused is proved guilty. Journalists do not assign guilt, but wait for responsible authorities to do so. Using the alleged or allegedly is a way of presenting a claim without assigning culpability. However using these modifiers alone does not offer any protection against defamation or libel, as a number of recent court cases have shown. For instance, in the 2021 judgement on Pius Bigirimana v. The Monitor Publications Limited and 4 Others, court faulted the media organisation for failing to verify allegations by contacting the plaintiff about claims of fraud and illicit activity made against him.
Good journalism dictates that all claims should be supported though credible sourcing and research. Using alleged or allegedly without disclosing how information was received, providing proof, accurately reporting known facts or seeking verification is unacceptable journalistic practice.
Occasionally, when facts cannot be sufficiently acertained, journalists opt to use the words alleged and allegedly. Such cases should be handled with great care. For example in the second scenario above, with many witnesses to a person’s death but no evidence of who fired the shot, it is wrong for journalists to claim that the police were at fault merely based on their presence at the scene. The preferred approach would be to state what is known (that someone shot and killed) and to clearly report on what is unknown (who fired the kill shot). If any allegation is made, the source of the charge should be specified and the unproved action should not be treated as fact.
Now what if, as in scenario three, personal testimony and victim accounts are provided? Here, proper wording and contextualisation is key. A journalist who reports victims’ accounts as a case of alleged torture risks presenting personal experience as dubious or untruthful. The media should present claims made as they are, properly attributed, verified where possible and presented in the right context. Additionally, comments from the accused should always be sought.
Simply, language matters, but the practice of good journalism matters even more. Journalists should not make themselves sources of claims they cannot prove. They must always attribute all claims, seek comment from credible sources, independently verify statements and refrain from publishing what cannot be proved.
Margaret Vuchiri-Alumai is a journalist with keen interest in media development. vuchiri[at]gmail.com