A journalist's instinct in dealing with crime is to be careful, and rightly so. Suspicions aren't always right, police charges don't always stick in court. So when charges are laid for serious crimes, the media correctly describe someone as being a suspect or accused of a crime. The final ruling on innocence or guilt is up to the courts.
The mass killing in Edmonton is quite different. In this case, police said without equivocation that Phu Lam was the gunman who killed eight people and then himself.
A story and headline The Globe and Mail published this week rightly called him a killer. But earlier stories, published even after the police described him as the killer, called him a suspect or the accused.
Another story called him a suspect in the headline even though the article makes it clear that he is the killer. "Edmonton Police have named Mr. Phu, 53, as the man responsible for the worst mass murder in the city's modern history," the article says. While the online headline called him a suspect, the Saturday newspaper story headline with the same content described him as "accused."
I heard from Michael Moore, a former chief of the news editing desk and long-time copy editor. "Why [were] we … calling Phu Lam a suspect? Edmonton police say he did it. He is dead, so there will never be a trial, so never a judicial verdict. When does he stop being a 'suspect' and start being just the killer? More generally, the word 'suspect' is used far too broadly. It is quoted mindlessly from the police who use it to refer to some unknown person who committed a crime. The police are guardians of public safety. We are guardians of the language.
"A suspect is a known person who is alleged to have done something, an allegation that can be tested in court."
The Globe and Mail's Style Guide also makes it clear that the word "suspect" is not appropriate in this case. Under a section on avoiding police-blotter language, the guide says: "Police use the word suspect in reference to unknown perpetrators, but we confine it to references to known persons who have been charged or are being sought. Even though the person is unknown, the crime is not."
While in my opinion, the headlines were too cautious in calling Phu Lam a suspect or the accused, careful use of language still remains an important value especially when a person could face a court trial.
In a quite different case, the Guardian newspaper's media columnist, Roy Greenslade, warns editors to beware in the ongoing coverage of the allegations against Prince Andrew, reminding journalists that these are allegations and allegations that have been strongly denied. In his column, he notes that the Daily Mirror editorial while accepting that the allegations have been denied, argued that "Andrew has brought shame on the Royal Family and Britain."