Monday, September 5, 2011

What the cover-up covered up

Yesterday's news reports of the death of Matthew Stuart, brother of the locally notorious Charles Stuart, tended to share a minor but interesting inaccuracy.

In 1989, Charles Stuart killed his pregnant wife on the way home from a childbirth class, blamed a (nonexistent) black assailant, and then, when his story fell apart, jumped off a bridge to his death before he could be arrested. But here's how the Globe (and a number of other news sources) described Matthew Stuart's role:
Matthew Stuart spent nearly three years in jail after pleading guilty to helping cover up the killing of Carole DiMaiti Stuart. He said he helped hide the gun believed to have been used by his brother, Charles Stuart, who blamed the crime on a black man.
Cambridge police have confirmed the death of Matthew Stuart, who helped his brother cover up the fatal shooting of his brother’s pregnant wife in 1989.
But of course Matthew and Charles didn't cover up the killing; it was reported instantly, by Charles Stuart himself, in a 911 call. They conspired and lied, but what they "covered up" was the evidence, not the shooting.

Journalism's rules account for some of the awkwardness in phrasing. We can’t call it "murder" or call Charles Stuart the killer, since he wasn’t charged and didn’t confess. So what’s the most economical edit that makes the report accurate? Is there a neater solution than "pleaded guilty to helping conceal evidence about the killing"?


Kay L. Davies said...

Pleaded guilty to helping conceal evidence. Nice.
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Charles Matthews said...

Seems to me the solution would be to specify what Matthew Stuart was charged with and convicted of: I.e., "pleaded guilty to [obstruction of justice? collaboration?}."

John Cowan said...

Why can't you call him the killer? You just said right there "Charles Stuart killed his pregnant wife". That makes him a killer. It wasn't proved in court, but you can't libel the dead, and anyway, he's a public figure.

So say boldly "after pleading guilty to helping cover up his brother's killing of Carole DiMaiti Stuart".

Bryan White said...

I ran across this sort of collision between journalism and legality not long ago. It was one of the stories where everything is "suspected." I don't remember the exact term used, but it was absurd in its context, but necessary for legal reasond I'm sure.

Of course, not I realize how pointless this comment is, since I don't remember anything about the story. But Darn It, I'm going to let it stand.

John Burgess said...

I frequently see 'alleged' still being used in news reports after there's been a verdict of guilty.

Whether it's journalists' being sloppy or their editors'--with the in-house lawyers standing over their shoulders--seeking to avoid any potential legal issue, it's not pretty.

Bryan White said...

Yes, "alleged", I think that was it.

Still don't remember the story though.

Stagg said...

I wonder if readers "read between the lines" anymore?


Marc Leavitt said...

The best I can come up with is "Pled guilty to hiding evidence"