Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Readers' Editor: Jurors we are not, but we can make fine judgments

Readers' Editor Paul Connolly

Readers have been, as usual, keeping us exercised on a range of issues. Two of the best this week can be posited thus: when is a murder not a murder, and why a recent front page could end up on eBay.

In popular culture, murder is a straightforward business. You rob a person of their life against their will and it's murder.

The real world, and the law in particular, is rather more nuanced. Murder is the deliberate killing of another human being by a wilful act done with ‘malice aforethought’.

The law, therefore, recognises certain defences against a charge of murder, including manslaughter, self-defence and diminished responsibility. Last week, one reader, Mick Burke, queried an online headline that read ‘Three men sought over estate murder’.

Mr Burke suggested our sub editors/writers should not have assumed the events in this case could be described as murder — even though they involved a raid on a house in Co Louth which led to the death of a man with a gunshot wound.

It’s a live case so I can’t go into details on it, but Mr Burke raises an interesting point generally. Journalists will obviously always defer to a courtroom verdict of manslaughter, diminished responsibility, etc and use the more neutral term ‘killing’ instead of ‘murder’ when describing the act.

Similarly, once a suspect is charged with a lesser offence than murder, then the term disappears in favour of ‘killing’.

However, in the immediate aftermath of violent killings, when the picture is usually unclear, should newspapers always be free to describe an incident as murder? And for how long afterwards?

The point is that most violent deaths result in a murder investigation and very often a murder charge, and it is not unreasonable for reporters and sub-editors to use the words ‘murder’ or ‘suspected murder’. Their job is made easier if the police release a statement saying that the incident is ‘being treated as murder’.

Although care should be taken in the use of the term, in the often confusing aftermath of a violent death, in my opinion murder or suspected murder is a not unreasonable noun/phrase to deploy in a newspaper headline unless the publicly known facts strongly suggest otherwise.

However, if the picture begins to change, reporters and sub-editors must be ready to change to ‘killing’ or another more neutral word. In my experience, this is the practice that most newspapers, including this one, adhere to.

It's a matter of fine judgment in the heat of the fray and that is why the journalist’s trade is often so tricky: trying, in a small way, to second-guess a jury.

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And finally, as they say on News at Ten, sharp-witted readers will have already filed away as a collector’s item our City edition last Thursday, which was datelined ‘Friday October 29 2010’.

It was a mistake in editorial production, immediately rectified for later editions. Thanks to readers David Dalzell and Des Marley who separately got in touch, with tongues firmly in cheek, to point out the error.

Des, in particular, suggests if we’re branching into the futurology business, the next day’s horse racing results would be a popular reader service!

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com

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