Journalists should watch out for vague cliches and dig for more details, The Globe and Mail's public editor Sylvia Stead.

By Sylvia Stead, public editor of The Globe and Mail

The debate over the phrase “known to police” continued online, on social media and in my inbox this weekend.

A number of people made the good point that it is not clear what the phrase means to the police or the readers.

Journalists would be well advised to press a little more and ask the police what exactly that means, one reader said. “In my view, a reporter faced with a police spokesperson saying ‘known to police’ should ask, ‘Can you be more specific? Did he have a criminal record? If not, what are you saying? He has associates with criminal records? He shows up in CPIC (the Canadian Police Information Centre) with incident reports but no convictions? Or what?’ And, if the answer is relevant to the story, consider printing it.”

Here’s another making the same argument: “ ‘Known to the police’ is a cliché, namely a trite expression used as a substitute for thought.”

This is excellent advice and asking more questions can take us closer to the truth and away from a vague phrase.

Another reader also said the phrase “no fixed address” is troubling. “It seems to suggest that whatever bad things happened to this person, it doesn’t really matter because they were homeless or lived in the cracks of society. Should a person’s address (or lack of one) matter? Maybe it does provide context, but it still bothers me somehow.”

This phrase is another one commonly used by police and courts to signal that a person might be hard to track down for further court appearances. Recently in The Globe and Mail, it was used to describe the man in the Netherlands who has been arrested for his alleged involvement in the Amanda Todd cyberbullying case. The article said he appears to have led a “solitary, wandering existence … He has no fixed address registered … no telephone number for him is listed.”

This is good detail to include beyond the cliché and it’s a reminder in the case of police language to look beyond the phrase and dig for more details.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.