Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Innocent vs. not guilty

Both of the dailies I have worked for ignored AP's policy on using "innocent" rather than "not guilty" in trial stories, even before AP changed its policy last year.

Old AP rule:
innocent Use innocent, rather than not guilty, in describing a defendant's plea or a jury's verdict, to guard against the word not being dropped inadvertently.
The rule now says:
innocent, not guilty In court cases, plea situations and trials, not guilty is preferable to innocent, because it is more precise legally. (However, special care must be taken to prevent omission of the word not.) When possible, say a defendant was acquitted of criminal charges.
So why were papers ignoring the old rule, and what made AP change?

There's a discussion going on about whether to make the change at the ACES message board. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution stuck with the "innocent" rule, it seems, and some people there are arguing for a change.) David Sullivan, the AME for copy desks at the Philadelphia Inquirer, explains it the rationale nicely:
If memory serves, part of the reason the AP had the rule was that it was so easy for the word to be dropped by printers (or by the people retyping things for the AP feed) and not be caught in the composing room proofing process. When printers became redundant (so to speak) the trend favored using not guilty because we have no idea if someone is actually innocent, and if an error was made it would be a newsroom error and not one foisted upon us by the allied trades. For those of us who remember how many errors were caught in the composing room, whether that makes sense or not... In the event, The Inquirer has used "not guilty" for many years.
So, use "not guilty." It's legally correct, and technology has rendered the reasoning obsolete. (You don't see people complaining about using "not" in any other construction, many of which could be just as important legally.)


At 4:06 PM, December 22, 2004, Blogger Bill said...

This reminds me of my snarky response to allegations that "alleged" and its variants are not valid defenses in a libel case. ("How about 'not'? Is THAT not a defense either?")


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