Monday, January 2, 2012

Technical Definitions

If you’ve been following the news, you know about the recent rash of car fires in the Los Angeles area. A related story from the Associated Press carried this headline:

Police: More cars set afire in LA, arson suspected

Let’s take a closer look at this. The basic definition of arson as defined by multiple sources is the intentional setting of a fire. This headline says, “More cars set afire” – as in “someone set fire to more cars.” Thus saying that arson is suspected is redundant, since most readers with a modicum of common sense can infer that the fires were intentionally set by the way the first part of the headline is worded.

However, there is another aspect to consider: legalities. Law enforcement officials, legal authorities, and yes, even journalists, are taught to be careful with words when discussing criminal cases, especially during initial investigations. Until an incident is officially and legally determined to be a criminal act, it has to be labeled as a “possible” crime. The person(s) responsible is/are “suspected” of the crime, or “alleged” to have committed the crime, etc. They will later be described as “arrested for,” “charged with,” and, as appropriate, “convicted of” the crime. It's a word game intended to prevent libel suits.

Legalese aside, I think this particular headline could have been worded better to eliminate the appearance of redundancy.

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