Why Is Maj. Nidal Hasan Still the "Alleged" Fort Hood Shooter?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 13 2009 6:05 PM

Why Is Maj. Nidal Hasan Still the "Alleged" Fort Hood Shooter?

Who else could have done it?

Foot Hood memorial. Click image to expand.
Fort Hood memorial

Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood last week, was indicted on Thursday. Most news stories covering the incident—including those on Slate—refer to Hasan as the "alleged," "accused," or "suspected" killer, even though several eyewitnesses have fingered Hasan and there are no other suspects. Why can't newspapers drop all these modifiers and just go with killer?

They can, but they usually don't out of deference to the judicial system. In a criminal case, of course, the defendant is presumed innocent, and prejudgment in the media could bias the jury pool. Any publication that chose to identify Hasan as the killer would be immune to libel claims, since the statement would clearly have been made in good faith. But reporters traditionally hedge until the legal system delivers its final verdict. Some news stories attribute conclusions to public officials so they don't seem like statements of fact. ("Prosecutors claim" can be a handy phrase.) The Associated Press Stylebook goes so far as to recommend "John Jones, accused of the slaying" over "accused slayer John Jones," because the latter more strongly suggests prejudgment.


Things can get a little muddy when a suspect seems unlikely to face trial—because he's dead, for example, or hiding out. In those cases, newspapers have to make a judgment based on how much of the story they have been able to verify. The decision is usually made by a senior copy editor or the managing editor, sometimes in consultation with lawyers.

Because news outlets make these calls on a case-by-case basis, published descriptions often vary. Just within the past few weeks, the New York Times referred to Mohammed Atta as the "leader of the 9/11 hijackers," while Reuters called him the "suspected September 11 hijack ringleader." Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provides an interesting case study, because he has been held for years without trial. Many reporters have been referring to him as an al-Qaida mastermind or the "chief plotter of the September 11th attacks." (They may be relying, in part, on the 9/11 Commission Report [PDF], which does not hedge on KSM's involvement, or his own admission to Al Jazeera that he was responsible.) But today's stories about his transfer to New York for trial almost all use "alleged" or some variant.

Obscure cases, which may escape the notice of lawyers and senior editors, tend to receive even more scattershot treatment. On Saturday, police found the bodies of a Texas man and his family in their home. Some outlets immediately called it a murder suicide, while others used the "officials claim" phrasing.

Any newspaper that wanted to call Hasan the killer could do so without fear of legal repercussions, but to describe him as a murderer might be slightly different. Murder has legal significance, unlike shooter or killer; murder is, by definition, the unlawful killing of a person—and only a court can make that judgment. If Hasan were eventually exonerated, he might be able to win a libel claim by showing that the newspaper called him something they knew him not to be: a convicted criminal. The more the phrase sounds like legalese, the more dangerous it becomes for the news outlet. So you'll often see people described as pirates even before trial, but an arsonist would almost always be "suspected" or "alleged" until his trial was over.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Randall P. Bezanson of the University of Iowa College of Law, Theodore L. Glasser of Stanford University, and Joan Konner and Richard C. Wald of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Become a fan of the Explainer on Facebook.



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Naomi Klein Is Wrong

Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.

The Strange History of Wives Gazing at Their Husbands in Political Ads


See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 1:38 PM Mad About Modi
 Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.

Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 12:42 PM How to Save Broken Mayonnaise
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 11:55 AM The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sales of Spyware Used in Stalking
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.