Or alleged war crimes?
For more than a year, daily news reports have included stories about the atrocities invading Russian troops have inflicted on Ukrainian civilians. The Russian military's actions have caused widespread suffering, much of it documented in heart-wrenching stories of pain and loss.
Many of the stories are focused on the trauma and suffering endured by civilians. A critical part of this narrative is to explore which of these acts are possible war crimes. Possible is a key modifier here. Although there seems to be plenty of evidence that Russia is ignoring the rules of the Geneva Conventions, in most cases investigators are still gathering evidence across Ukraine. It's not clear which acts international prosecutors will actually declare to be war crimes, or who they will attempt to prosecute.
This week we address a listener who objected to hearing the word "alleged" connected to "war crimes" in an All Things Considered story. To the listener's ears, it sounded cautionary, when no caution was necessary. We contacted an All Things Considered host with a lot of international expertise to get her take on why NPR might attach "alleged" to "war crimes" when reporting on Ukraine. Our inquiry prompted a healthy discussion.
We also highlight an informative story about Americans' rising credit card debt.
FROM THE INBOX
Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.
Why use "alleged"?
Kevin Howard wrote on Feb. 27: What is the purpose of using the qualifier "alleged" in the story about Russian war crimes? The story itself made clear that they have been committed; another story circulated just the day prior reporting that 68,000 war crimes have been documented in Ukraine; and anyone who is sentient saw what occurred in Bucha, Mariupol, and countless other cities and villages. Alleged? Why waste your breath? ...
A year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, All Things Considered brought listeners a story about evidence of Russian war crimes there.
Host Mary Louise Kelly introduced this story saying the past year has "brought mounting evidence of alleged war crimes by Russian soldiers" in Ukraine.
It's standard in journalism to use the word "alleged" when reporting on possible crimes. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends that journalists use the word with great care.
Here's an example the book provides: "Use alleged bribe or similar phrase when necessary to make it clear that an unproved action is not being treated as fact. Be sure that the source of the charge is specified elsewhere in the story."
We contacted Kelly and asked about using the word in the context of this story. Kelly appreciated the question and said it was a fair one.
"The situation is that Ukrainian prosecutors have documented potential war crimes, including a case for genocide. But they're still figuring out to what extent to prosecute individual soldiers, versus military commanders or political leaders who gave the orders," Kelly told us in an email. "And until we have convictions, whether it's in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world, we try to be very careful."
Kelly added that it's true that this past year has brought mounting evidence of war crimes by Russian soldiers.
"NPR reporters have seen that evidence with our own eyes. But, as our chief international editor Didi Schanche notes, 'We are not the judge or jury or court. So until conviction, these remain allegations,'" she wrote. "International correspondent Deb Amos, who has extensive experience covering war crimes trials, agrees. She notes, 'Ukraine is a crime scene — that anyone can see. But the rules on reporting are still important.'"
It's a cliché to say that journalism is the first draft of history. But when it comes to war, that first draft is vital. The story of Russia's assault on Ukraine will be filled in as the years go by, as international courts have their say and as the war itself resolves. For news consumers to stay engaged with so much suffering, for such an extended time, the journalism must remain precise and avoid hyperbole.
Kelly's use of "alleged" reflected the caution and care journalists are expected to have in their reporting. — Amaris Castillo and Kelly McBride
The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.
NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith reported an insightful story about credit card debt and its effect on Americans. After dipping in 2021, credit card debt in the United States is rising at a record pace. And millennials' debt has risen by nearly 30% since before the pandemic. Smith took listeners and readers beyond the alarming numbers with the story of Stephanie Roth, a divorced mom of three young children whose credit card debt has ballooned. Half of her paycheck goes to day care, and she has had to increasingly lean on her credit card to make ends meet. The story explains how the debt got this high for Americans, and humanizes the struggle with its focus on a person experiencing these financial challenges. — Amaris Castillo
The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.
NPR Public Editor
Chair, Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute