Words Matter

Thanks to my solid academic training, today I can write hundreds of words on virtually any topic without possessing a shred of information which is how I got a good job in journalism.

Dave Berry, Journalist/Humorist/Columnist/Novelist

Dear [insert the name of your favorite journalist to whom this would apply]:

You have seen fit to re-christen Mike Brown with a euphemistic alias: the “unarmed black teenager.” That he was unarmed, black, and relatively young are all relevant facts. Relevant, but not dispositive by any means. We must be careful not to so cavalierly ascribe to those facts more implicit gravity and consequence than they deserve:

  • Although Brown was unarmed, (1) we don’t know if the officer knew that, and (2) a person can still pose a deadly threat without being armed.
  • Although Brown was technically a teenager, he was 6’4″ tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds. And there’s a big difference between an 18-year-old and a 13-year old.
  • And although Brown was black, that is more relevant to the broader social science studies on preconceptions and innate biases than to the split-second decisions of this officer in that fleeting moment. After all, even assuming the officer was a rabid racist, he would still have the right to self-defense if all the prerequisites presented themselves (which we don’t know).

Many of you have also hastily ruled this a “murder.” In Missouri, “[a] person commits the crime of murder in the first degree if he knowingly causes the death of another person after deliberation upon the matter.” Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.020. Take away the prior deliberation, and you have second degree murder. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.021. However, it’s not “murder” if the lethal force is otherwise justified. Were the officer’s actions justified under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 563.046 (deadly force in the course of an arrest)? Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know. Could the shooting be justified under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 563.031 (deadly force in self-defense)? Possibly. We don’t know. Was the shooting completely unjustified and prosecutable? Also very possible. We don’t know.

That Mike Brown is deceased is an objective fact. That he was shot and killed by Officer Wilson is also an indisputable fact. Report those points to your heart’s content. But the assertion that his death was a “murder” is not a fact — at least not yet. The assertion that firing six shots is automatically “excessive” is also not a fact; it’s a drawn conclusion. None of this can be prematurely taken for granted.

Likewise, if you don’t know for sure, please don’t call it racism. Of course, it might very well be racism. Certainly possible. But until we know, it’s dangerous to speculate. And I’m not using the word “dangerous” in the metaphorical sense. I mean it is literally dangerous.

Private citizens can guess and hypothesize all they want within the confines of their own discussion circles. And some of their reasoning and conclusions may be plausible or even probable. But you, the media, you play a very, very different role. The First Amendment, just like the Second Amendment, comes with tremendous responsibility. You in the media are just as armed as we are in the gun world. Your pen is just as powerful as my firearm. Both are capable of good and bad, depending on the person wielding the tool. If I mishandle my weapon, innocent people could get hurt or killed. If you mishandle your weapon, innocent people could get hurt or killed.

So please, I beg you, choose your words wisely. File your FOIA requests and fight like hell to get objective data and evidence (like the autopsy reports), and report that. If the authorities are witholding information unlawfully, then hell, report that. But don’t take the liberty of filling in the blanks. Your job is to get the news, not to create it. This is not a fluffy story about tech gadgets or fashion police. Lives are at stake. You accepted this platform, and you have an obligation to respect its power. With emotions running as high as they are, the slightest turn of a phrase could mean the difference between a peaceful demonstration and a deadly riot. Don’t get me wrong. Any act of violence is first and foremost the fault of the actor. But if you egg it on — either by carelessness, incompetence, or deliberation — you have blood on your hands.

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