Against Allegedly

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There’s a word, and it’s quite short, for how the vast majority of information in this world is conveyed: Said. A person can say something. Multiple people can, together, say something. Old-timers in the newsroom will tell you that a document can’t say something because paper can’t talk, but that’s okay. Another, almost equally short word, stated, will do.

And so it should be easy—incredibly easy—for working journalists to express what is a fact by now, and has been for some time: More than 90 women, the number increasing nearly every day, say that Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped them. These women have said these things. This is either one of the greatest, most organized campaigns orchestrated to bring down a man in history—and I highly doubt that doesn’t begin to cover how ludicrous that conspiracy theory is—or these statements build a case, certain key points of which can be repeated as facts.

Yet over and over again, nearly a month after the story broke open, I see the same damn word in stories about Weinstein: Allegedly. Or its close relative: Allegation. Or, for the sake of space, alleged. (And don’t forget its cousin, accusation.) It is a word that, in conversation, nobody uses, unless you want to be cheeky—I’m allegedly a good cook. So in a time when the question driving the national conversation is, “Why don’t people believe women?” it’s worth examining the media’s role in contributing to that, much of which comes down to habits of thought that can be seen in the overuse of this one word.

Words matter. The words used by reporters especially matter. Every article is littered with clues. Is this something someone told me? Is that person a neighbor, a friend, a police officer? Told to me in person or in email? Or from a press release? Is it from a document? A public record or leaked material? Are these sources anonymous? As good as the concept of bias-free journalism sounds, there is always some level of bias in the language and imagery chosen to convey the information—something that hardly only applies to how reporters write about women.

American journalism is, in large ways, a collection of shorthand passed down from generation to generation, whether or not a person formally studies it. Every story has a headline. Headlines should be subject-verb, unless it’s a feature headline, in which case an arresting phrase with a few lines below explaining it—called, naturally, the subhed—will do. Information should be attributed, unless you saw it with your own eyes. Someone who won’t talk “declined to comment,” unless it’s someone who really should have talked, in which case the heat gets upped ever so slightly with “refused to comment.” Keep your paragraphs short, your sentences shorter, and for the love of God have visuals and video, because nobody wants to read your wall of text, not even your mother. (She says she did, but come on.) For all the revolutions the internet has promised us—and it has promised us many—the basic structures of a piece of journalism and how it functions in the world have not changed.

This shorthand gets transmitted with very few questions asked, like why allegedly gets thrown around like the most critical word possible when writing about certain crimes, often being inserted when it’s not needed and adding a degree of doubt and distance beyond what makes sense. For good measure, journalists might throw in an accuses or accusation too, adding another layer of ass-covering doubt. That’s how you get headlines like this, in which a few words morbidly downgrade the worst night of one woman’s life to “accuses” and “allegedly sexually assaulting.”

To hear the keepers of the craft tell it, alleged is important because it signifies that the writer doesn’t know the exact, final truth. This is often true. They’ll argue that it’s important to show that what is said in cases is an allegation or an accusation and not a fact. They’ll assert that a source could be wrong, and that this hedge may prove important when, days later, reporters have to come back with different information and explain discrepancies. This is, they’ll say, America—the land of reasonable doubt, a very good legal concept we all can agree with. Report what you know, the saying goes. How can journalists be certain of anything if they weren’t witnesses to what happened? It is a sign, they’ll say, of scrupulousness, practically a sign of journalistic virtue.

Which is a load of shit.

I didn’t pay allegedly much mind until I went to college and majored in journalism. How I feel about my journalism degree depends on the day; I learned some good practices, like working with public records, and I’ve discarded a lot of what quickly became dated or useless, like how to use that pica pole. But at some point, one of my professors told one of my reporting classes that allegedly was a mostly meaningless word. What mattered was attribution—explaining who had said something or what document had provided the information. So instead of writing, “The man allegedly robbed a bank,” write, “The police report said that officer saw him robbing a bank.” This seemed, and seems, like sound advice to me.

Then I graduated, began working full-time in journalism, and found that my professor had been an anomaly. Editors added the word allegedly a lot, and then lawyers would add it some more too. I was always told it was to convey that a claim was an allegation, another word choice I’d go over again and again in my mind years later: Why is it an allegation and not, instead, seen as something a person said? Why do we say, “He allegedly raped a woman” instead of “A woman reported to police that he had raped her.” Isn’t the second way of saying it more accurate?

Did I push back? No. I almost always let the allegedly get added. I let accusation be added too. It was easier, I told myself, a battle not worth fighting, and anyway who cares what a low-level reporter thinks, and I needed to get paid. Every day in daily journalism is a battle—battling your sources for more information, battling your editors for more time, battling the copy desk to please not cut that quote you loved. In other media, the names of the players change (change out editors for news directors, say, or copy editors for online producers), but the tension remains. And the fight over allegedly is the easiest one to cave on. It’s just one word, I told myself.

I look back on all those decisions, all those times I said, “Sure, boss, that’s fine,” and they seem like a small part of how all of this became codified: thousands of cub reporters saying yes, because it was convenient, because we’d rather save what little political capital we had in the newsroom for something else, or, maybe, honestly, because we were all just lazy. Look at how much easier it is to just say “alleged behavior,” as if “alleged behavior” is even a real thing:

But that doesn’t explain all of the allegedly creep.

Doubt is part of crime reporting. The reporter doesn’t know what happened. Neither do the cops. Witnesses might have seen something, but the human brain is, at best, a faulty recording device. Physical evidence can be contaminated or manipulated. Juries just get it wrong sometimes, as proven by the hundreds of people freed from prisons for false convictions thanks to the work of groups like the Innocence Project. In a perfect world, all parties would be treated equally and fairly, and all parties would be doubted.

It doesn’t work that way. Instead, reporters treat each source differently based on how credible they think they are, or just how much power that person has to make the lives of reporters miserable if they make an error. So while the women speaking out against Weinstein are accusers who allege allegations, the district attorney who refused to prosecute Weinstein has his words treated as facts, like in this NBC New York headline.

Just as telling is who doesn’t get the wiggle language, who is allowed to speak as if their words and their accounts are facts. Like when the military said Pat Tillman died fighting the enemy. (He actually died in a friendly-fire incident.) The story was sourced to unnamed people within the U.S. Army, and that was enough. From the Arizona Republic in 2004:

WASHINGTON — Pat Tillman died while leading a team of Army Rangers up a remote southeastern Afghan hill to knock out enemy fire that had pinned down other American soldiers, the Army said Friday.

The Army released details of the former Arizona Cardinals football player’s death as it announced that he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, its third-highest award for combat valor.

Tillman, 27, and his team were initially not in danger from the hostile small-arms and mortar fire when the April 22 ambush began. But when the rear section of their convoy became pinned down in rough terrain, Tillman ordered his team out of its vehicles “to take the fight to the enemy forces” on the higher ground.

As Tillman and other soldiers neared the hill’s crest, he directed his team into firing positions, the Army said. As he sprayed the enemy positions with fire from his automatic rifle, he was shot and killed. The Army said his actions helped the trapped soldiers maneuver to safety “without taking a single casualty.”

You can keep reading, but I’ll cut to the chase—at no point does the report use the word allegedly in any of its various forms, even though the entire military narrative would be proven wrong. You will find a similar dynamic in articles—later proven false—about the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch (not an alleged to be found in a Washington Post story later proven wrong), and in the false New York Times reports that lead up to the invasion of Iraq (one article by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller used allegedly just twice, very low in the story to qualify the words of a source granted a pseudonym and cited heavily throughout the report).

A woman who says a powerful man raped her needs to have her story couched in wiggle words because she might not have all her facts straight. The words of an anonymous military source or district attorney are treated as fact. This is what women mean when we say “believe women.” It is not a call to believe things just because we say them. It is asking to give us the same benefit of the doubt—or lack thereof—granted to large, powerful institutions run, predominantly, by men who often use that power to hold back or directly hurt women.

So allegedly, alleged, allegation, and accusation are, in part, words used to signify whom reporters trust and whom they do not. But there’s another factor in the usage, one that weighs mightily on the Weinstein coverage: lawsuits and the money to pursue them. Anyone who has had a story “lawyered” knows this. It is, in some ways, the ultimate thumb on the scale of who gets treated certain ways by reporters—their financial ability to make your life hell.

If you follow the case law, this should not be a huge concern, especially in a case like Weinstein’s. The standard, on paper, as Angus Johnson points out, is supposed to be the quite high “actual malice.” In reality, though, the standard is actual malice plus how much money the person has to sue and continue suing you plus how likely they are to do so. Weinstein definitely has a lot of money and has been threatening to sue.

It should come as no surprise, then, that along with Weinstein headlines littered with allegedly has come a story about another Hollywood executive who was investigated for making an “unwanted sexual remark” that almost wasn’t published. The reason why, as reporter and editor Kim Masters described it, was the Gawker effect and the threat of litigation. She did, eventually, find a home for her article, which ran back in August under the muted headline “Amazon Investigated Studio Chief Roy Price Over Claim Of Sexual Remarks.” After the Times broke the Weinstein story, producer Isa Hacket spoke on the record with Masters about what, she said, Price had told her: “You will love my dick” and later, “anal sex,” yelled in her ear. He was suspended hours later, and weeks later resigned.

Was the U.S. Army ever going to sue to “set the record straight” on a death they had lied about to turn into propaganda? Of course not.

Weinstein was able to victimize so many women because he had so much power over them and that power—coupled with calcified journalistic habits born out of nothing more than repetition and fear of running a correction—allowed and allows him to silently influence the coverage of the hell he wrought on people. Weinstein’s horrors remains alleged. The women’s stories remain accusations. These repeated words have a way of shifting the focus; Weinstein remains the central actor, while the women get blurred to the point of abstraction. When Weinstein responds to allegations he is a person, and the women are things—accusers or allegations.

As weeks have passed, the headlines and opening paragraphs have gotten stronger. The hedging of bets is still there in the stories, though, just further down. The New Yorker, which was the first to report that multiple women said Weinstein raped them, notes in its latest report that the women have “levelled accusations.” The Times, which first reported that Weinstein had been entering secret settlements with women who said he harassed and assaulted, still feels the urge to dust the lower parts of a report with the phrase, as in “the accounts provide a widening tally of alleged abuses.” Here it is less about conveying disbelief than a convenient shorthand. You can unpack all the horrifying ways in which women said Weinstein terrorized them, or you can cite “alleged abuses” or growing “accusations.” The journalistic quest for brevity is good, most of the time. But sometimes its effect is nothing less than papering over very real pain and trauma with buzzwords.

At this point, I wonder what is the magical number that will make the word alleged unnecessary. It’s a morbid game of addition involving people’s actual pain and suffering. At 95 women, do reporters get to slough it aside? Or will it take 99? Perhaps a nice, round 100 will finally satisfy editors across America that, perhaps, these are more than allegations—that these are women coming forward and saying they were harassed, assaulted, and raped.

There is an easy fix. You can say the women said all this. The women said Weinstein harassed them into giving him massages while he was naked. The women said Weinstein assaulted them. The women said Weinstein raped them. It is, I realize, a clunky phrase for headlines. When a story needs to lose three inches, any concerns for such sensitivities will quickly melt away. The Times is always going to be the Times and just write in its maddening yet signature Times-ese. But these women said it, with their own action, their own agency, in their own voices. Saying they did so is just fair treatment.

Journalists—often from podiums, clad in suits, at some conference at which little gets done beyond networking for that next gig—love to wax quixotic about words. They love to say they matter. In practice, I find it hard to believe many feel that way. All I see is that everything I read is allegedly.