by Michael Sweeney, Professor; Associate Director for Graduate Studies
The first homicide was pretty clear-cut. So was the news account of it.
Journalism, out of necessity, has grown muddier since the days of Adam and Eve’s children. Newspapers and other media must exercise caution when reporting about one person killing another.
Innocent until proved guilty makes good law, but bad syntax.
More about that later. Here’s what the Book of Genesis has to say about the slaying that started it all:
“And Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
“And the Lord said unto Cain, ’Where is Abel, thy brother?’
“And he said, ’I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?’
“And the Lord said, ’What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.
“And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.”
Aside from the redundancies — no good journalist would say so many times that Abel and Cain were brothers — the biblical scribe has set out the facts clearly and cleanly. The writer says right off who the killer was and how the crime was committed. There’s no doubt about it.
But that first journalist had some advantages that we do not.
First of all, the Lord makes a pretty reliable source. In this story, he acts as witness, prosecutor, judge and jury. Of course, there weren’t a lot of people around to help him try that first case.
Secondly, the Bible says Cain, Abel and the first family farmed and raised livestock. Not one of them was a libel lawyer. We are to assume that such folk came to pass judgment in later generations.
Concern about civil law and reporting the truth is reflected in modern journalism.
Professional journalists base their reports on what can be proved. It is obvious, for example, that a slaying has occurred when a body is found with a bullet wound in the back. The identity of the killer is another matter.
The police might arrest the wrong person, the police might have the right person but the wrong name, the slaying might be a justifiable homicide instead of a murder, etc.
News stories therefore separate facts about the victim and the death from the facts about a person being accused of the crime. Being wrong not only is unfair to the suspect — and the reader — but also invites a lawsuit.
Only after a jury has decided that someone is a killer does a reputable journalist identify a person as such. One exception occurs when there is strong evidence of guilt and the person accused of the crime is dead. The dead cannot sue for libel.
Given these rules, here’s how a modern professional journalist would report the first slaying:
“EAST OF EDEN — A farmer known only as Cain has been cursed after his brother, a rancher known only as Abel, was slain, the Lord said today.
“Abel’s body was found in a field where he and Cain were reported to have gone a few moments before. The Lord said the blood of the dead man, still fresh on the ground, bore testimony to the crime.
“The Lord accused Cain of the killing, saying the earth ’hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.’
“The Lord is said to have deported Cain from his homeland. Cain could not be reached for comment.”
Now, please don’t go saying that someone like Cain is an “alleged killer.” That awkward piece of syntax surely suggests to most folks who are paying attention that the accused is as good as convicted. (The noun is killer; the adjective is alleged. This construction says so-and-so is a killer, and then describes what kind he or she is. Just like “purple killer.”) Call someone a murder suspect, a slaying suspect, a homicide suspect, etc.
Why be so careful? Sometimes the police get it wrong. I know. I was once accused of stealing a car. I had not done so, but I did look like the guy who did. So, for the sake of my mom, and mothers everywhere, be careful when you write a news story about a crime suspect.