I’ve had a few questions about the use of the term “alleged murder” to refer to the deaths of Betty Janet Skinner and Brittany-Nicole Kidd-Stergis in Cleveland last week. I can only imagine the degree of hurt, anger and outrage – perhaps fear? – in the community and it is fair to say that the media has significantly contributed to all of those things and the ongoing persecution of our community. And by media, I mean this blog among others. I contacted the Huffington Post with the story. While I did not write their headline, it did link to my blog so I take responsibility for the confusion and miscommunication.
Alleged is a term used to describe legal things, things that must be determined in a court of law under our judicial system. A suspect is not guilty until a jury or a judge says so. The media is not supposed to determine guilt or innocence, merely report the facts or offer an opinion. But an opinion is not a legal verdict. So most media outlets use “alleged” to convey all of that and to protect themselves from falsely accusing someone, to avoid the perception of bias.
So that makes sense for a person, a suspect in a crime. But why are crimes “alleged?” Well, we use murder in a general sense to describe a myriad of legal terms – manslaughter, murder, negligent homicide and there are degrees to those. So part of the investigation and the trial is focused on determining if there was intent – you’ve seen this play out on television shows. Thus, while it seems self-evident that Betty and Brittany-Nicole were the victims of foul play resulting in their death – what we generally call murder – the media has to balance the legal terms, it is possible that these or any similar circumstance could be manslaughter or some other legal crime. And that distinction is important for the sake of justice and fairness.
Betty and Brittany-Nicole were the victims of some terrible violent act that resulted in their deaths. That is a horrible fact and one that should not be lost. Betty and Brittany-Nicole were both transgender women. We don’t know if that played a role in their deaths, but we do know that the Cleveland media violated their identities when reporting on their death. We suspect that misgendering both women feeds the larger violence in society that took their lives – we just don’t know how to connect the specific dots.
I understand that the suggestion that their deaths were not murder is offensive (and ridiculous, too) but I encourage you to focus on the media issues where the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others went wrong – misgendering them, referencing their gender identity for salacious purposes not for factual reasons, and disregarding the attempts of Cleveland’s LGBTQ community to address these issues. Those decisions are unprofessional, inaccurate and unfair. And I hope you will work with GLAAD to push back and demand that your media treat the community better.
I’ll give you links to media guides so you can read more for yourselves. And I’m glad that you pushed back on me to explain myself. It is fair to hold an LGBTQ blog to the same standard as the general media. I didn’t use alleged in my original reporting, but this has sparked an internal dialogue about how we respond in the future.