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Public editor: Does ‘known to police’ imply guilt?

Murda Marz was killed April 4, 2014, in what Toronto police described as ‘brazen’ gunfire after a car chase early in the morning

Fred E Fame

A reader recently took The Globe and Mail to task for using the phrase "known to police."

It showed up in an article this month about a rapper who was killed in what Toronto police described as "brazen" gunfire after a car chase early in the morning. Police said the man was known to police and lived a high-risk, criminal lifestyle.

The attack, a detective said, "was not random. It certainly was targeted in my view."

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The reader found this tabloid-cheap – and suggested that there was a not-so-veiled implication that the rapper "deserved" what he got. "There are plenty of good-hearted and good natured-people," the reader wrote, "who unfortunately have criminal records."

Is this response naive? Overly critical? Morally brave? Wise? I went online to ask what other readers made of the phrase – and was promptly flooded by thoughtful responses.

"It is a useless phrase that does, unfortunately, carry very negative implications," wrote one reader. "There are any number of reasons a person could be 'known to the police.' Perhaps the person is a member of some public-spirited volunteer organization that works closely with the police? Perhaps the person was once suspected of a crime, but cleared or perhaps the person is a criminal."

Others called the phrase "imprecise," and "lazy," a sign of "moral presumption on the part of the person using it."

But there were also readers who felt the phrase offered something useful to readers: "I like the 'known to police' information. In fact, I seek it. It means the person has had a 'brush with the law.' 'Very well known to police' means 'career criminal.' … It gives context."

"The complaint about the use of the milquetoast phrase 'known to police' is unjustified," wrote another.

In the middle were readers who felt that context was key when using the phrase. Say a teenager had a run-in with police then turned his life around, wrote one reader: How relevant would the term "known to police" be in that case?

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Another agreed that the phrase casts people in a negative light – "a sloppy and potentially damaging practice" – unless they are currently charged with a crime or had recently been found guilty of one.

Whatever their take on the phrase "known to police," readers raise important questions. Journalists must be careful not to judge alleged criminals (or victims) with the language they use. That means asking themselves whether their words are revelatory to the reader, or are tilting the facts.

So how careful are Globe reporters? I checked to see how many times the phrase "known to police" has been used in the past year – and in what context. I found 30 articles: In almost every case, "known to police" is used to describe someone who has been killed, is a suspect in a killing, stabbing or violent crime – and in one case a dead mobster.

(The only exception is an editorial about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, which notes that some of his closest friends are "known to police.")

The key to using this sort of language is care: Used correctly, "known to police" offers useful information. And I think it is a better practice to give readers more information to help them understand an issue rather than self-censoring and giving less.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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