Elizabeth Donald
Jul 28 · 4 min read

There are so many things wrong with the phrase above, and we see it constantly in coverage of sexual assault cases… but only sexual assault cases.

It’s been one of my pet peeves for many years, but it came to mind because of a Boston Globe piece about the Kevin Spacey investigation last month. The Globe was digging into court filings on Spacey’s indecent assault charges, alleging he fondled a then-18-year-old busboy against his will. Their initial headline called him an “alleged victim.”

In the hour it took me to research and write about the phrase, the Globe rewrote the headline and lead to call him “accuser” and switched to “alleged assault.” Progress?

Those charges have since been dropped…. and in the coverage, once again news stories have resurrected the phrase “alleged victim.”

The Spacey case is important because the actor is a public figure, and because the allegations against him blew up the #metoo discussion and highlighted the fact that sexual harassment and assault isn’t just something that men do to women. Journalists have gone to great lengths to avoid naming the young man — as is appropriate — and then have listed family connections that ostensibly identify him anyway. That essentially defeats the purpose of shielding victims, as recommended in the SPJ Code of Ethics. We have done better work, as a profession.

But my real issue is with the phrase “alleged victim,” which is constantly used by all branches of the news business and needs to die.

First: “alleged” is a coverall term we slap onto anything we think might get us sued. It’s useful, to be sure, but why is it that only sexual assault victims are “alleged victims”? No one is an alleged burglary victim, for example. The presumption is that the crime occurred for every other personal crime except sexual assault, where the burden of proof inexplicably falls on the victim.

In our effort to create a phrase that shields the victim’s identity while not presuming guilt, we have created a phrase that does exactly the opposite.

I’m hardly the first to say this. The late great Steve Buttry wrote about it in 2012. His essay is now linked to the SPJ Code of Ethics, as he details far better than I the linguistic issues with “alleged victim” as a “blame the victim” term that needed to go away. He made the excellent point that it’s lawyers telling us to say “alleged victim” out of terror of lawsuits if the trial ends with a not guilty.

But there are other ways to cover our collective rear ends without casting doubt on the allegations before they even take the stand.

The word “victim” is problematic as well. In interviewing many people who have been subject to sexual violence, “victim” is generally an unpopular word that removes their agency. I have generally found that they prefer the term survivor, which is appropriate for a piece written after verdict.

But then there’s that pesky presumption of innocence. I’m not overly fond of “the accuser,” although it is technically accurate and Buttry prefers it; it carries a presumption of vindictiveness on the part of the subject, and of skepticism on the part of the writer.

What’s the solution? Quit being lazy and rewrite your story. Restructure the sentence, kick out the words “alleged” and “victim” both. “The young man told the court that the phone has been misplaced,” beats the hell out of “The alleged victim said he lost the phone.” See how the latter changes the entire meaning of the sentence to sound as though he’s lying?

These are tricky issues and difficult stories to write, and I’m sorry to spotlight one story by the Boston Globe when this particular sin is so widespread. In fact, for that specific story, it appeared in the headlines of the Chicago Tribune, ABC and Vanity Fair. CNN, Fox News and USA Today went with “accuser.”

A tweet circulating on the morning of the Globe story alleged that one of the young man’s texts to his girlfriend that night was actually published as a dancing GIF. I did not see that in the current version, and if it was created by the newspaper, that would be wholly inappropriate. We can do better than this.

Buttry made the best point of all: “Don’t start whining ‘political correctness’ about this. That’s a name-calling phrase people use in an attempt to shut down discussion and skew arguments in their favor. This is about accuracy and if you don’t care about accuracy, I don’t care what you have to say.”

As I have told my students many times and will continue to shout until they haul me away: more than any other profession, journalists must recognize the immense power of words. Language is the most powerful tool we have, and we must never use it lightly. The words we use form the public’s impression of the issue we cover and the people whose lives hang in the balance, and that is a responsibility we cannot shirk, no matter how tight the deadline.

Elizabeth Donald

Written by

Journalist for more than 20 years, president of St. Louis SPJ, masters candidate/teaching assistant, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author.

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