If I were the editor of a newspaper I would lay down a few simple rules.
First: In reporting arrests, I would ban the line "If convicted, Mr. Doe faces up to a maximum of …"
That's deceptive, because it gives readers a false sense of security. They think that another threat to their persons and property will be out of circulation for a good, long while.
Not so. Between plea-bargaining, sentencing "guidelines," compromises made within the jury room, so-called "mitigating factors," and the personal philosophies of individual judges, the odds are that Mr. Doe is not going to get the maximum sentence.
The better practice would be to make no mention of possible penalties until Mr. Doe has been convicted and sentenced, and then to conclude the story with, "As originally charged, Mr. Doe could have been sentenced to a maximum term of …"
Second: Do away with the expression "execute" when describing the killing of a hostage or kidnap victim by a criminal or terrorist organization. "Execution" means the carrying out of a sentence pronounced by a legitimate court having lawful jurisdiction of the case, after observance of at least minimal rights of the prisoner.
Absent these little niceties, killing a prisoner or hostage is murder. The media should call it that. To label it an "execution" is to give a whiff of legitimacy to an otherwise barbaric act.
Third: Never quote someone as saying, "I could care less …" even if that is what was actually said. The correct expression is "I couldn't care less," meaning that "I am completely indifferent to …" whatever the subject is.
If "I could care less …" appeared in a story on the newswires, I'd tell my copy editors to change it, rather than give space to people who are too illiterate to express their feelings accurately.
ROBERT G. MORRIS