The police are involved in shootings every single day, but the common descriptor, "Officer-Involved Shooting," can obscure their role in violent incidents. Bob speaks with Craig Martin, co-director of the International and Comparative Law Center at the Washburn University School of Law, about the intentions and effect of the term.
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BOB: Reporters are taught to use plain language. We don’t say “operate a motor vehicle.” We say “drive.” We don’t say “imbibe alcohol.” We say “drink.” But sometimes journalists get sucked into a rabbit hole of NewSpeak, embracing euphemisms designed by government to change the subject. “Enhanced interrogation tactics” was one such. And now, as police shootings fill the headlines, comes another. See if you can spot it.
ANNOUNCER: The officer involved shooting happened tonight at the Mission police station on Valencia street.
ANNOUNCER: We’ve got some new details about that man who died in that officer-involved shooting that happened.
ANNOUNCER: This morning police are looking into what led an officer-involved shooting that killed a former marine.
BOB: Craig Martin is co-director of the International and Comparative Law Center at the Washburn University School of Law. He says the term “officer-involved shooting” is not just cop-speak drifting from the station house to the newsroom, but an intentional blurring of the facts.
MARTIN: If a dog bit a child, we would not expect to hear someone say that the child was injured in dog involved biting. That would just be a strange way to report it.
BOB: At the risk of belaboring the obvious, why would there be such a convoluted construction?
MARTIN: When we say that someone is involved in some incident, it leaves unclear the centrality of their involvement. It creates the insinuation that they may have played a peripheral role, their role is uncertain. But in these incidents, there's no uncertainty at all. They are the primary actor. It's not just the officer involved shooting as a headline, but also the manner in which it's used in the reports themselves. Typically it's reported that a man died of an officer involved shooting, and that compounds the problem. When we say that someone died, it suggests or insinuates that it's from natural causes as opposed to saying that someone was killed or to use the active voice, that a police shot and killed a person. And the causality in terms of who shot and injured whom is crystal clear, so there's no reason for us to use this sort of opaque language.
BOB: ON the most fundamental basis, there's bad guys and there's the police who are that thin blue line protecting us from mayhem, and they are at great risk, and sometimes killed. It's not really hard to understand the tendency to not want to immediately affix blame when a cop has shot somebody. Is that what's happening here?
MARTIN: Well, I think that that may be perhaps the instinct that's driving this, but I would suggest that really this unusual, in my view, misleading use of language has to divorce entirely from the issue of justification. If police officer shoots and kills someone and we determine that it was entirely justified under the current standards for the use of force, that should have nothing to do with how we report the fact in plain language.
BOB: There are gymnastics going on. Our producer, Kasia Mychajlowycz, did a little digging, this is not a scientific investigation, but she tried to find officer involved shooting as a term in US newspapers and wire services. In the 2000s, there were close to 7200 hits. So far in 2015, with the subject very much in the public eye, 3400 so far. I do have a theory about this, and one is that officer involved shooting all together, functions as a noun. And it's a whole lot easier in a declarative sentence and especially in a headline to talk about an officer involved shooting rather than try to explain a policeman shot a suspect.
MARTIN: Officer shoots man is three words too and in fact it would be a more punchy headline, officer shooting can also be treated as a noun, and that's two words.
BOB: So that's it, just take out the "involved" and just let officer shooting stand?
MARTIN: Yeah. Language matters, as George Orwell has famously written. If we can't write about our politics in clear language, then we will cease to be able to think about our politics clearly. IT's important in a democracy for us to be clear in explaining how the institutions of the state interact with us. The agents of the state are killing its citizens at rates that are higher than any other well developed democracy, and we ought to be thinking carefully about that.
BOB: Craig, thank you very much.
MARTIN: Thank you.
BOB: Craig Martin is an associate professor and co director of the International and comparative law Center at the Washburn University School of Law. He's also the author of a recent Huffington Post article, "Time to Kill the Term Officer Involved Shooting"