After decades of turmoil, journalists must acknowledge it is not their job to protect the police.
Opinion by Matthew Royer, Political News Editor
Pick up your television remote and turn on the nightly news. More often than not, within two hours, you will see the phrase “officer-involved.”
The terminology used throughout decades of journalism is a relic designed to protect the police by glossing over incidents of over-aggression, brutality and murder of innocent people. Commonly inserted in stories where firearms are used to end a pursuit or conflict, “officer-involved” confuses the reader into thinking that the police cannot be the aggressors. In 2020, after the murder of Jacob Blake at the hands of police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the AP Stylebook released a guide for covering such instances.
“Avoid the vague "officer-involved" for shootings and other cases involving police,” wrote AP on Twitter. “Be specific about what happened. If police use the term, ask: How was the officer or officers involved? Who did the shooting? If the information is not available or not provided, spell that out.”
Despite the stylebook’s insistence on the shift in journalistic style, more than a year later, newsrooms across the United States are caught daily choosing the overplayed phrasing over clearer language.
No other profession is given such egregious leeway when reported upon. Pick up a newspaper, in writing is there ever an example of an attorney-involved court case, politician-involved legislation or teacher-involved education? The answer is clear, of course not. These positions of power, while having the ability to create catalytic change both positive and negative, are reported on by stating the facts, without skipping details by hiding behind broad diction.
Newsrooms have a duty to provide impartial coverage of events to the general public, who consume the news under the assumption that its investigation is thorough.
For example, when a shooting occurs, it is up to reporters to collect details accurately without relying on local law enforcement that will give their biased account of the situation. If summarizing the events means including “officer-involved” instead of stronger, more detailed language that features the how, who, where and when.
If not following the guide the stylebook laid out for journalists, those in the occupation which writes “the first draft of history,” as Philip Graham once said, are subscribing to a world of laziness, committing themselves to the side of the oppressor instead of the truth.
The LA Times, having changed their style to match AP Stylebook, filed a day-of correction on Oct. 5 for their story originally titled “Woman hospitalized after Simi Valley officer-involved shooting.” After the story was published, observations were made online that the news organization chose the wording provided by police on the scene, instead of the more accurate title “Woman hospitalized after being shot by Simi Valley police,” which the headline was changed to shortly thereafter.
This recent case of “officer-involved” wording was a mistake that was quickly corrected, but every day, especially on local television, the choice to use “officer-involved” is a choice of power.
Siding with law enforcement instead of readers or viewers who simply want accurate coverage is a purposeful foundering that pushes the foundations of journalism into a dark corner covered in yellow “caution” tape.