Everyone Knows How the Officer Was ‘Involved’
It’s time for journalists to reject this Orwellian euphemism
In my younger years, I studied journalism at the University of Minnesota. Following that, I worked as a newspaper copy editor for seven years. This was long before the Black Lives Matter movement was born (at least, under that specific name). The term “officer-involved shooting” bothered me even back then. Here’s why.
“Officer-involved shooting” only ever means one thing. We never say “officer-involved” when it’s the officer who was shot, nor when a civilian shoots another civilian while an officer was on the scene. “Officer-involved shooting” always means a policeman or policewoman pulled the trigger. Period.
So how did this oddly indirect phrase arise? In 2015, an enterprising writer for the ‘Reporter’s Notebook’ of louisvillefuture.com looked into it, and traced the term back to the year 1980 … and to a law-enforcement agency, the Officer-Involved Shooting Unit in Los Angeles. (Here’s the whole Louisville Future piece, which is excellent — but be warned, you’ll have to sign up in order to read very far into it).
Since 1980, the expression has caught fire. Yet I haven’t seen anything written about it lately, in relation to the current unrest. This might be because the flashpoint, George Floyd’s death, didn’t involve a gun.
In fact — although it’s probably obvious why I’m writing this story at this point in time — you can take race completely out of the equation, and the argument is no less strong. Here’s why: In journalism school, it’s a Day-One-Before-Lunch tenet that the media and press are not an arm of the government. That’s why reporters don’t hand over their notes to law enforcement, nor photographers their film. Some of them have spent time in jail rather than do so.
This isn’t just a lofty journalism-school principle that evaporates in the heat of real newsroom operations. It’s the rule in the trade, too. I never met a single person in the business who argued the opposite.
It’s a Day-One-Before-Lunch tenet that the media and press are not an arm of the government.