The Term 'Officer-Involved Shooting' Needs to Be Permanently Retired
We don't call riots "people-involved disruptions"
In George Orwell’s 1984, the ruling political party in the state of Oceania created a new vocabulary called “Newspeak.” It was a mechanical, unnatural language devoid of nuance designed to limit critical thought (or “crimethink”) in order to better control the populace and encourage automatic acceptance (or “bellyfeel”) of the state.
So many news outlets still employ the Orwellian phrase “officer-involved shooting” even though the phrasing is stilted and passive. Daniel Nichanian, founding editor of the criminal justice-oriented news outlet The Appeal, used that style of phrasing to describe a riot.
The Newspeak-esque term “officer-involved shooting” sounds Orwellian because it came directly from the police — not from newsrooms. In 2015, Kentucky-based local news blog Louisville Future dug into the origin of the term and found that it came from the Los Angeles Police Department in 1980. Apparently the LAPD’s “Officer Involved Shooting Unit” was set up specifically to complicate press inquiries and investigations of police officers shooting citizens:
Its first use by journalists that we could find was in a 1980 Associated Press story, “Four Injured in Bizarre Shooting Incident,” that refers to the Officer Involved Shooting Unit run by Lieutenant Charles Higbie. According to author Joe Domanick, former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti described Higbie as withholding “information for hours, days, or weeks” and “impeding [our] investigations.” Garcetti and former judge James Albracht also told journalist Roger M. Grace that Higbie regularly interfered with the district attorney’s investigations of police shootings.
To be clear, many local news outlets still see themselves as extensions of local police departments. In July of 2008, I did my required summer internship for my journalism degree at an NBC affiliate station in Kentucky. There were roughly a half dozen police scanners set up throughout the newsroom, and anytime there was a car accident or a fire or a shooting, the producer would deploy a reporter and a cameraman, and one of the interviews was usually with a cop. In that way, the police dictated what the news of the day would be.
Because ratings showed that viewers want to see blood and guts and fire, the newsroom’s resources were largely spent ambulance-chasing. During one late-night conversation, one reporter I held in great regard told me how deeply unhappy she was in her job and that if I wanted to spend my career doing real journalism, I should stay far away from local TV news.
In a November 2019 issue of his newsletter Welcome to Hell World, Luke O’Neil affirmed this, saying local TV news reporters “are basically cops.”
“The public defender and prosecutor model, those are the two jobs in journalism too. Reporters maybe don’t think about it like that but either you’re a public defender or you’re a prosecutor,” O’Neil wrote. “You’re either punishing or helping.”
While reporting on the recent shooting of Jacob Blake — an unarmed father of three who was shot in the back multiple times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin — WISN 12 News reporter Sarah Thamer employed the phrase.
However, when watching the video, describing the act as anything but a brutal, cowardly, cold, inhuman act of senseless violence requires Olympic-level metal gymnastics.
Now compare that video to this one, in which a white man resisting arrest repeatedly refuses to comply with an officer’s demands. He eventually charges at the officer, goes to his car, gets in the car, drives around the scene, crashes into the officer’s car, then flees the scene with the officer chasing him on foot. Not once did the officer fire one shot.
It’s the job of a journalist to take complex information, digest it, and package that information into an easily consumable product for the masses. In newswriting classes, they encourage you to write at a seventh-grade reading level. So there’s really no excuse to ever use the phrase “officer-involved shooting.” Readers should assume any journalist who uses that phrasing has a pro-police bias, and journalists should openly question editor’s biases when instructed to use that term.