To The Public Editor of the Toronto Star:
I am curious about the Toronto Star‘s use of the term “innocent bystander,” most recently on July 16 2012 in the story, “Scarborough shootings: Two killed, 19 injured as bullets fly at barbecue.” The word “innocent” has always confused and troubled me in this context.
Why does the Star choose to characterize a bystander as “innocent” only when they are shot, nearly shot, or threatened with serious physical harm in other very specific ways? What does the notion of innocence have to do with describing a victim of interpersonal violence? Would the Star, for example, describe me as an innocent bystander if I got struck by lightning?
The designation of innocence only for some bystanders suggests other bystanders are not innocent. I have never explicitly seen the Star describe a bystander as being “guilty” of anything, although your paper routinely informs us when the victim of violence has a criminal record. In these cases, the target of the violence seems never to be characterized as innocent.
When something happens to a bystander, but the Star does not describe that person as an innocent victim, what is the reader to interpret? What separates an innocent bystander from any other person? Does the reporter determine innocence? Do Star reporters ask eyewitnesses if the victim of violence was innocent?
Is the idea of innocence is being used to describe someone who is not the intended target of violence? If so, wouldn’t it be better to just say that instead? Can someone who we perceive as being violent or threatening still be deemed innocent if they are the target of violence? What about someone armed with a weapon? And what does the word “innocent” mean in this context? Blameless? Free from moral or legal wrong?
The notion of innocence is so powerful, and has so much potential to be misunderstood when used to describe someone who is standing somewhere when something happens. When a bystander is attacked but is not described as innocent, people may interpret that the victim bears some responsibility for the violence perpetrated against them. This idea terrifies me, because it can lead people to ignore or downplay acts of violence based on a very superficial notion of the guilt or innocence of the victim.
I assume the Star abhors violence regardless of the identity of the victim. But as I’ve said, it’s also an issue of the accuracy of the term “innocent.” I would be very happy if your publication stopped using this term, or provided a justification for its use that I fail to see. It’s great to have a Public Editor, so thank you in advance!
Sent on July 18 2012. Contact the Star’s Public Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.