Wednesday, October 20, 2021

For what

I see this opening sentence in an article published by CNN: "GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, who was recently indicted for concealing information and lying to the FBI regarding an investigation into illegal campaign contributions, has officially resigned from his committee assignments." 

Anyone care to guess what in that sentence has triggered my boundless scorn? 


In the Former Times, when journalism organizations employed copy editors, we were all schooled that that preposition for suggests certainty, established fact. And because people accused of criminal acts receive a presumption of innocence in our legal system, we never allowed indicted for to get into print, substituting indicted on a charge of. 

Curious whether standards have shifted during my senescence, I plucked my Associated Press Stylebook from its place of repose and found: "To avoid any suggestion that someone is being judged before a trial, do not use phrases such as indicted for killing or indicted for bribery. Instead use indicted on a charge of killing or indicted on a charge of bribery."

It may be a little thing, but following that guideline observes the fundamental principle that journalists are not to put their fingers on the scales. 

It is similar to the guideline of not using murder as a synonym for homicide or killing until after a verdict, because sometimes people accused of a homicide are acquitted, or convicted of manslaughter instead. Again, the AP Stylebook still says, "Do not say murdered until someone has been convicted in court." Use murder only as part of a formal charge, AP advises, adding that writers should say that a person was killed or slain

(If I were still engaged in slapping the AP Stylebook around, I'd be prodding them to drop slain, because every time I see slain in text or slaying in a headline, I want to remind the publication that the 1940s are over.)

When you see that journalists are punctilious in details like these, you can begin to hope that they are careful and accurate in the bigger things as well. When they are not ...