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The Meaning of a Charged Word

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The Dallas Morning News has a story today in the Metro section headlined, "Review sought in judge's recusal in double slayings." It's about the contretemps in Ellis County that erupted when Dallas lawyer David Finn got on the wrong side of District Judge Gene Knize. The whole thing is very entertaining for courthouse junkies and outlined on Finn's blog, complete with transcripts of the jury selection hearing that had the criminal defense attorney bowing and genuflecting before Judge Knize.

What caught my eye was the headline with the word "slayings." Webster's gives a definition of slay as "to kill or destroy in a violent way." Labeling the case "double slayings" paints a picture of a killer murdering his victims in cold blood, of gunshots and flashing knives and brutal strangulations.

But this case is not about that.

Finn is representing James Leon Williams, 56, a San Antonio truck driver, charged with criminally negligent homicide resulting from a 2005 accident that killed James R. Nation and Debra Carder. The state alleges that Williams fell asleep and slammed his truck into a car, killing the occupants. No drugs or alcohol were found in Williams' system and Finn will argue that it was an unavoidable accident. Even if what the prosecution claims is true, does "slaying" accurately describe the crime that Williams is accused of?

In a culture obsessed with murder and mayhem -- checked out the plotlines of half the prime-time TV line-up these days -- maybe we're too quick to use such charged language. Yeah, as a writer with the Dallas Observer, I appreciate the irony of my complaining about charged language. I plead guilty. And headlines aren't easy to write: They have to be short, concise and vivid. I can't write anything under 500 words long.

But all journalists -- myself included -- should remind ourselves when we're writing stories and headlines about trials that the accused are innocent until proven guilty and choose our words with that in mind. Slaying or tragic accident? There's a big difference. --Glenna Whitley

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