Style Matters #48: There’s an established protocol to describing suspects

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One of the desks that nearly all reporters will work on at some point in their careers is police rounds (in the US this may be known as the crime desk).

And long-form – fiction or non-fiction – writers may also find themselves describing suspects being sought for specific crimes, real or imagined.

The idea of describing suspects is to communicate to audiences physical, observable characteristics that help readers recognise and, in real life, potentially report any sightings to police.

However, as a writer, if you are not familiar with describing suspects – either from police reports or from conversations with officers – you may not be aware that there’s a protocol to follow when you do your write-up.

If you stick to covering these bases, details are likely to be unambiguous and readers are not likely to stumble over the inevitable string of factual descriptors.

The mix of facts that you should determine typically includes:

  • skin colour
  • gender
  • age
  • build
  • height
  • hair colour and length.

Skin colour is usually relevant and will typically lead off your written description. The order above, while ideal, can be mixed up with care. If you are describing more than one suspect, though, use the same order for descriptors with all suspects.

However – even if police stipulate or speculate on race – be careful to consider whether racial background will be a relevant factor in each circumstance.

Gratuitous reference to a specific race or nationality, especially if it turns out to be inaccurate, inserts bias into a description and may – even inadvertently – lead to injustice either at the point of arrest or in court.

Also note that, in Australia, suspects of white European descent are usually described as Caucasian. This term in other countries and contexts may be seen as derogatory.

If it’s available and there is space, you may want to include a description of clothing plus any distinguishing features, such as scars, tattoos, distinctive hairdos, a bandaged limb and so on.

Sometimes police will have a good idea of exactly who they are looking for, so their descriptions will be more precise.

For news writers, one of the grammar issues to watch is the need to switch from past tense to present tense in the same sentence. This acknowledges that police gave the description before you published it and then that the suspect is still believed to be alive, at large and probably looking like his or her description. If you stick with past tense throughout the sentence (as is usual in news copy), then you probably will suggest the suspect is, er, past tense.

Another issue to watch is the careful selection of prepositions and pronouns. Take a close look at the following examples:

  • The suspect was described as (being) a Caucasian male in his 20s, of average build, about 171cm tall, with curly, brown, collar-length hair, wearing a blue T-shirt, black jeans and dark sunglasses.
  • Police described the suspect as a dark-skinned female in her 30s, possibly of islander descent, of heavy build, about 163cm tall, with long, wavy, black hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a green and red striped top, pale knee-length shorts and sandshoes.
  • Detectives said they were looking for two Asians, one a male, 25, of lean, muscly build, who is 165cm tall with short, black hair and a tattoo on his neck, last seen wearing dark clothes, while the other is a female, 22, of slight build, who is 161cm tall with short, spiky black hair shaved close on one side, wearing a pink tracksuit and sneakers.

This level of precision in fiction is only necessary if a writer is trying to emulate the way news is reported or the “police-speak” of a formal report made by authorities. Otherwise, authors have far more latitude to introduce these details in a more leisurely, unstructured fashion.

NOTE: If you work for a non-Australian news organisation, you may be required to use a slightly different style when describing suspects. In such cases, new roundspeople should check through past editions to see how suspect descriptions are handled in their workplace.

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If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters or connect via Facebook by liking the reporting4work Facebook Page 

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