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Public editor: More feedback on vague and troubling phrases

A man in the Netherlands who has been arrested for his alleged involvement in the Amanda Todd cyberbullying case was described as having ‘no fixed address.’

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The debate over the phrase "known to police" continued online, on social media and in my inbox this weekend.

A number of people made the good point that it is not clear what the phrase means to the police or the readers.

Journalists would be well advised to press a little more and ask the police what exactly that means, one reader said. "In my view, a reporter faced with a police spokesperson saying 'known to police' should ask, 'Can you be more specific? Did he have a criminal record? If not, what are you saying? He has associates with criminal records? He shows up in CPIC (the Canadian Police Information Centre) with incident reports but no convictions? Or what?' And, if the answer is relevant to the story, consider printing it."

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Here's another making the same argument: " 'Known to the police' is a cliché, namely a trite expression used as a substitute for thought."

This is excellent advice and asking more questions can take us closer to the truth and away from a vague phrase.

Another reader also said the phrase "no fixed address" is troubling. "It seems to suggest that whatever bad things happened to this person, it doesn't really matter because they were homeless or lived in the cracks of society. Should a person's address (or lack of one) matter? Maybe it does provide context, but it still bothers me somehow."

This phrase is another one commonly used by police and courts to signal that a person might be hard to track down for further court appearances. Recently in The Globe and Mail, it was used to describe the man in the Netherlands who has been arrested for his alleged involvement in the Amanda Todd cyberbullying case. The article said he appears to have led a "solitary, wandering existence … He has no fixed address registered … no telephone number for him is listed."

This is good detail to include beyond the cliché and it's a reminder in the case of police language to look beyond the phrase and dig for more details.

A few other words or phrases appeared in The Globe on the weekend that were anything but clichés, but really made you think.

On my Saturday column was this clever headline: Frisking a phrase: Does 'known to police' imply guilt?

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Or how about this wonderful front-page headline on an inspirational piece by Sandra Martin: The Good Death: How one woman transformed her final year into an inspiring lesson in facing the unknown.

Or this provocative headline on an Elizabeth Renzetti column: Compare a seal hunt to Auschwitz? Exactly what Hitler would have done.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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