Enough with "Alleged" and Other Weasel Words

Living in 2017 means waking up to new reports about sexual assault⁠ and harassment committed by men in power on a near-daily basis. It’s amazing to see so many people coming forward to speak about what’s happened to them. It’s heartening that the response is often very supportive. We’re apparently (finally) ready to start having a serious conversation about these abuses.

But it also has me thinking a lot of thoughts about rape⁠ culture; not just as a person who thinks rape culture is awful, but as a journalist who reports on these issues. The media can be a double-edged sword. At times it brings the unseen to light and forces us to confront it, but at other times, it reinforces harmful social attitudes and norms. Sometimes that reinforcement is completely unconscious.

 You can probably think of some examples of reporting on crime that blame the victim, whether it’s stories about rapes that mention what the survivor/victim* was wearing, murders where someone’s history as a sex⁠ worker is brought up, or mentions of someone’s perceived attractiveness in an article about a horrible violation that person experienced. Rape, sexual harassment⁠ , and violence are about power and control, not sex, but sensationalized reporting on these issues can definitely suggest otherwise.

There’s another, more basic way in which the media perpetuates rape culture. You’ll probably spot it if you check out⁠ the front page of a newspaper or the landing page of a major news organization. It’s in the headlines you skim every day.

How many times have you seen something like this?

  • Teacher Had Sex with Schoolgirl, Victim Alleges
  • Accusations from Alleged Victims Mount Against Prominent Man
  • Woman Claims Comedian Made Explicit Sexual Remarks Backstage
  • Actor Claims He Was ‘Raped’ By Director in 1988
  • Woman Confronts Her Alleged Rapist

Had sex withthat very phrasing takes rape and sexual assault out of the picture, because they “had sex.” Alleged. Accused. Claims.

We call these “weasel words” or “hedges,” language that softens the content of a headline. In nations with very strict libel laws, like the UK, people say this is necessary to protect publications from lawsuits. In other countries, it may be spun as giving someone a fair say, for being stained with such a sensitive, awful crime could be damaging to someone’s reputation.

For a number of years, I spent a lot of time painstakingly explaining this to people.

“You see,” I would say, patronizingly, “the case hasn’t actually gone to trial, so they can’t call him a rapist.” Or: “We say ‘had sex with’ because the teacher hasn’t been convicted of rape, I know, it’s clumsy, but what are you going to do?”

I did it because that was what editors told me every time they wrote a headline (fun fact: most journalists do not write our own headlines) or tweaked the phrasing in an article. I did it because that was what I was taught, and in the United States, where “innocent until proved guilty” is a national refrain (even though it’s only a standard we usually hold for white dudes with power), it felt “wrong” to do otherwise. It was repeated over and over again: Don’t condemn some poor innocent man to harassment or lost opportunities by describing him as a rapist without a conviction. So he’d become an “alleged” rapist, and his victim/survivor would be making a “claim,” and sexual assault turned into “had sex with.”

Because that’s how you do it, right?

But here’s the thing: Journalism is about accuracy, and my stance on this issue shifted radically the longer I worked in the field, and the longer I interacted with and came to better understand rape culture. It is possible to accurately report on sexual harassment and assault without using weasel words that cloud meaning or suggest victims are liars. The logic behind language like “alleged,” “accused,” and “claimed” is that they indicate that someone said another person committed a crime, but the matter hasn’t gone to trial, so we can’t say for sure.

There was another word in the last sentence there that people are strangely reluctant to use: “Said.” Which is a pretty value-neutral way of describing a situation. You’re reporting on what an actual human literally said. The article will provide more detail on what was said and the status of any investigation into what the person said.

What’s the difference between: “Student says she was raped by three classmates on field trip” and “Student alleges she was raped by three classmates on field trip”? Is it splitting hairs? I don’t think so.

Both headlines are accurate, but one centers the voice of the student, and one distances the student from the reporting and introduces a note of doubt. There’s nothing libel-inducing in “student says,” as it’s reporting the truth: The student said she was raped.

When it becomes “alleged” or “claims,” it sounds like maybe we don’t believe the student. It casts doubt on whether a crime occurred at all, let alone who might have committed it. It tells victims and survivors who speak out that they can’t be taken at their word. With a long history of treating people who report rape like liars, language that subtly casts doubt on what a person says also sets someone up for disbelief, harassment, and abuse⁠ . This kind of language establishes doubt as the status quo, rather than belief, and support.

At Deadspin, Diana Moskovitz recently made the case against “allegedly,” noting that crime reporting — which is what this is, sexual assault and harassment are crimes — is built around doubt, and when nothing is certain, you have to pick through your words carefully and consider their power. But, Moskovitz notes, journalists have biases, and these come through in their work as well as in the systemic patterns and norms of the industry – like the norm that says you have to put scare quotes around “rape” in a headline or stress that someone made an “accusation.”

Reporters treat each source differently based on how credible they think they are, or just how much power that person has to make the lives of reporters miserable if they make an error. So while the women speaking out against Weinstein are accusers who allege allegations, the district attorney who refused to prosecute Weinstein has his words treated as facts, like in this NBC New York headline.

Try it sometime: Skim over some articles and headlines and see how media organizations attribute the sources of information.

High profile people, major organizations, people in power, and official spokespeople are often given the benefit of a “said”: “The company said the data breach only affected a small number of customers.” “The actor’s representative said it was a consensual sexual⁠ relationship⁠ .” Weasel words start to show up when a journalist deliberately wants to cast doubt on a subject, often serving as a wink or a sly nod to the reader: “A White House spokesperson claimed the statement was taken out of context.”

Casting doubt on rape victims/survivors is so normalized that weasel words are built into how the media talks about their cases.

Think about it when you talk with friends: When you say: “my friend said polls closed early,” the implication is often “this is legit info.” What about when your friend “claims,” though. How does your interpretation of that statement change? Does it become “well, maybe the polls closed early, but maybe not, we really need more information to be sure”? Think about how these words are sometimes used as jokes and in sarcasm: “Allegedly she was going to finish her homework” or “she claims her dog ate her homework.”

We’re all tangled up in rape culture together here, which is why our choice of words and how we wield language matters. Why, as Moskovitz says, should people in power be given endless benefit of the doubt and a gentle treatment in the media, while the powerless who are speaking out are undermined in the headlines? How do you use language like “claim,” “allege,” “accuse,” and “said”?

Words mean things.

If you’ve been struck by the growing number of people speaking out, ask yourself how you can use your words as resistance. Maybe for you that’s: correcting people who use weasel words; writing letters to the paper when it employs them in headlines; encouraging friends to reframe the way they talk about sexual assault; leading a teach-in on more mindful phrasing; doing a find and replace in your essays and other writing for weasel words; and considering that the way people use language may tell you something about them.

For extra credit, think about flipping this language on its head to underscore how absurd it is: Try using weasel words to describe information that is clearly factually correct, and also pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, and see how people react. (“She claimed it rained yesterday.” “They allege they had a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.”)

And when someone approaches you to say they’ve been sexually assaulted? Say: “I believe you” and “what can I do to support you?”