March 21, 2012

News organizations have used a variety of words and phrases to describe Trayvon Martin’s death: Fatal shooting. Shooting. Murder.

We used the word “murder” in the headline of a story I wrote about journalists’ coverage of Martin and George Zimmerman, who shot him. Some readers pointed out, though, that it’s premature to say Martin was the victim of murder. Even though Zimmerman admitted to the shooting, he has not been charged.

Time Magazine is one of the media outlets that used the word “murder” in the headline of a story about Martin. Time has since replaced the word with “killing.”

We’ve since added an editor’s note to our story and based on the reporting for this post, we changed the headline to say “killing.”

Time Magazine also used “murder” in the headline of one of its stories about Martin. After I contacted Time to find out about its decision to use that word, Daniel Kile, executive director of public relations, sent me a note saying that Time has updated the post and added this note:

“The original version of this story used the word ‘murder,’ which has judicial dimensions. We have substituted the word ‘killing’ for the death of Trayvon Martin.”

The AP Stylebook says a homicide only becomes a murder once someone is convicted.

“Unless authorities say pre-meditation was obvious, do not say that a victim was murdered until someone has been convicted in court,” the Stylebook entry for “homicide” reads. “Instead, say that a victim was ‘killed’ or ‘slain.’”

Dan Abrams, legal analyst for ABC News, said it’s understandable that people would use “murder” interchangeably with “killing and “homicide.”

“I think some advocates are intentionally using the word ‘murder’ because they believe this was a murder (pre-meditated or not) with the requisite intent. Fair enough. Analysts may make assessments about whether and why prosecutors ought to indict and on what charge. That is opinion. But those seeking objectivity should use the word ‘killing’ or ‘shooting,’ which is undisputed. Was it murder? Manslaughter? Self-defense? Those are thorny legal questions for prosecutors and ultimately a jury to decide.”

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Mallary Jean Tenore

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