Submitted by Marvin Miller
We can hardly see or hear a news report without encountering the word suspect, with the accent on the first syllable. My dictionary defines suspect as one who is suspected, especially of a crime. It doesn’t say suspected by whom. Usually, when the media use the term suspect, they don’t state who is doing the suspecting. They just call the person a suspect.
The media usually get their information about events involving suspects from “the police”, i.e., from someone in a police department acting as a spokesperson for the police. The media have a symbiotic relationship with the police: they get news stories from the police, and the police get their viewpoint on any story disseminated by the media. When the media call someone a suspect, they mean someone suspected by the police.
The use of the word suspect dehumanizes the person to whom it is applied, in the minds of those who hear or see the word. It evokes subconscious antagonistic feelings, especially fear. We usually don’t have time to evaluate, analyze, or question the use of the term. This is particularly the case with the electronic media, which send information to us continuously, preventing us from thinking about what we hear or see before we receive the next incoming information.
We tend not to think of suspects as people. In our culture, people have rights, but suspects don’t. The Constitution says that a person accused of a crime has the right to a fair trial. Some of the worst people in the world, even Nazi war criminals, had trials. In the highly unlikely event that someone who has been represented in the media as a suspect has a trial, can the jurors think of him as innocent until proven guilty? When a suspect is killed rather than being arrested and tried, we hear that he received justice.
How does one become a suspect rather than a person? In detective stories, this happens as a result of an extended investigation. But in the real world there’s no time for that. Our age is one of instant formation of subconscious attitudes, as Malcolm Gladwell described in his book “Blink”. Someone is a suspect in the mind of one who sees him because he looks like a suspect; that is, he looks different in some way from how the viewer thinks a “person” ought to look. Prof. Gates was a suspect in his own home, in the mind of an officer.
Attitudes such as racism that are prevalent in society are naturally also prevalent among its police, and they are reflected and promoted by the media. News isn’t what happens; it’s what the news media choose to report about what happens. We learn about what happens from the media, and they learn about what happens from their sources. Every image of a Black suspect in the media reinforces the subconscious view that people who look like that are suspects. Media people decide what to show, based in part on their own views and also in part on what they think will resonate with the views of their audience.
When we encounter the word suspect, we need to think about what it means, to what extent its use is justified, and what the potential consequences of its use are.