November 6, 2009

Alleged Shooter

Not surprisingly, NPR has devoted a good deal of air time on Morning Edition to the mass killing that took place at Fort Hood yesterday. At one point, a correspondent called Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan “the shooter.” He quickly corrected himself, referring instead to the “alleged shooter,” saying something about Hasan’s not having been convicted of anything.

This sort of defensive journalism is really rather silly. To call Hasan a “shooter” is not a statement about his guilt or innocence before the law. That, indeed, is a matter to be determined, and it is proper to insist that, as a legal matter, Hasan is innocent until proven guilty. In particular, it would have been incorrect to call Hasan a “murderer,” as that term does imply a legal judgment, though perhaps not in all contexts.

That Hasan was a shooter is widely attested by many eyewitnesses, and, although eyewitnesses are not always factual in what they report, the likelihood that Hasan shot no one at Fort Hood on November 5 seems vanishingly small.

The silliness of this journalistic caution becomes obvious when we compare the case of Hasan to other reporting where there are many witnesses and certain basic facts seem not to be in question. Reporters don’t talk about the “alleged” victim of a traffic accident or the “alleged” speaker at a political rally. Instead, ordinary events that take place in public are taken to be what they seem to be unless there is strong reason to suspect otherwise.

It is conceivable that Maj. Hasan was not a shooter yesterday, but, not being an experienced conspiracy theorist, I find it difficult to imagine a scenario in which this would have been the case. Media lawyers need to lengthen reporters’ leashes a bit.

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