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Charges & Allegations

other topics under BASICS: Avoiding "Cop Talk", Broadcast Sentence-Structure, Leads & Teases, Rewriting Copy, Using Numbers

During the initial flurry of stories concerning President Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the late ABC-TV news anchor Peter Jennings interviewed humorist and social commentator P. J. O'Rourke. Jennings asked O'Rourke to discuss "the alleged age difference between the President and Ms. Lewinsky," to which O'Rourke wittily replied, "Yes, Peter, we haven't yet determined whether there actually is an age difference between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. There is only an alleged age difference."

Jennings smiled at the reply, realizing that he had misused the word "alleged." The word allows journalists to discuss claims that have not been proved, but it is a word easily open to abuse.

Say, say, say

The best way to use the words "allege," "alleged" and "allegedly" is not to use them at all. Instead, have your scripts reveal who is making the claim by using phrases such as "police say" or "prosecutors say" followed by the substance of the allegation. For example, a story about a bank-robbery suspect that contains the sentence

should be rewritten so that the sentence reads

As another example, if a sentence in a story about a local government official facing trial for corruption reads

rewrite the script into something like

Always use the verb "say" in such scripts. Avoid the temptation to employ other verbs (such as "claim," "state" or "charge") when reporting allegations. Other verbs bring connotations that will color your reporting. For example, if your script has police claiming that an individual committed a crime, your listeners may well interpret the script as indicating that you the reporter do not believe the police. To speak of someone charging an allegation implies legal actions -- charges -- have been filed. To maintain as unbiased and accurate a report as possible, stay with the neutral verb "say."


Learn the distinction between "accused" and "alleged." When legal charges have been filed against an individual, that individual becomes accused of the behavior detailed in those charges. The individual can then be described as an "accused rapist," "accused murderer," "accused embezzler," and so forth. In scripts, the use of the adjective accused should be limited to one occurrence at or near the beginning of the script in order to describe a suspect quickly and efficiently. Notice the use of the word in this story about a homicide trial:

Listen to this script!

In the above script, the adjective "accused" appears once and only once. Multiple use may lead listeners to believe that you the reporter want them to think a suspect is guilty because the adjective "accused" is weaker than the powerful nouns it regularly accompanies (such as "murderer" or "rapist").

Charged up

As has already been mentioned, the verb "charge" implies that legal actions have been filed against an individual or company. The verb should be used only to describe the process of filing the action:

The specific legal charge should also be named, such as the "two counts of first-degree murder" of the previous example. Pay careful attention to the specific charge. Prosecutors may say that an individual is a murderer and organized-crime boss but charge him with only tax evasion. The defendant could then be described as being "accused of tax evasion" but not as an "accused murderer and crime boss" -- the murders and organized-crime connections are allegations, not charges.

Proper allegations

Occasions do exist for the use of "allege," "alleged" or "allegedly." When claims are made concerning an individual but no legal charges have been publicly filed, and the source of the claims is complicated to identify, then "alleged" becomes an acceptable option for describing the individual and the claims. For example, a community group holds a press conference calling for the firing of the deputy chief of police. Earlier that week, three former civilian employees of the police department told a newspaper reporter that they have heard the deputy chief use racial slurs. The reporter was investigating a tip that the deputy chief had recently faced a closed-door, disciplinary hearing with the public safety director and the civil service commission.

The complex nature of the story can lead to extremely tortured syntax in your script. In this situation, a sentence such as

might be the most efficient way of succinctly explaining the story. As with "accused," forms of "alleged" should be used only once in a given script.

Finally, remember the mistake of Peter Jennings and ensure that you place the word "alleged" in front of what is actually being alleged. Rewriting the previous script example to read

significantly changes the meaning of the sentence. Now the question is not whether the deputy chief made comments, but rather whether the particular words he used were racist. If, however, it has not yet been determined what, if anything, the deputy chief may have said, the allegations concern the making of the comment and not the sense of the comments themselves. The earlier version of the sentence is then the correct one.

Finally, until a judicial authority has rendered a decision, a suspect or defendant has not been proved guilty of the charges or allegations against him. Not only is it unethical to describe this individual as, say, a "murderer" or "embezzler" without the qualification of words like "accused" and "alleged," but such descriptions could turn you into a defendant yourself -- for libel.

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