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The Problem with ‘Allegedly’

Ukrainian journalists and a serviceman look at a video of “alleged” Russian soldiers “allegedly” captured by Ukrainian troops before a news conference in Kyiv on May 18.
The Problem with ‘Allegedly’
used to convey that something is claimed to be the case or have taken place, although there is no proof.

I’m sick of the word “allegedly.” In the context of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, its nine letters just spell out misrepresentation, confusion, and unjustified doubt.

We see “allegedly” used in Western media reports, for instance, in conjunction with Ukraine’s claims that it has detained two Russian soldiers from a military intelligence unit operating in Ukraine.

“We have to use ‘allegedly’, because we don’t have 100% proof,” a Western journalist says, when asked about the use of the word when reporting the story of the capture of the Russian soldiers.

But the problem with “allegedly” in this context is twofold – first, it does not adequately convey the probability of the claim being true, and second, it says nothing of the credibility of the source throwing doubt on the claim.

“Allegedly” is a lazy word, which semantically attributes a 0.5/0.5 probability to any claim to which it is applied. It has the potential to be abused.

To illustrate this in an absurd way, it’s quite true to say “Allegedly, the British royal family are shape-shifting Lizard People.” Some people have actually claimed this.

But note that nothing in this claim tells us anything about the probability of the claim being true, or about the credibility of the person making the claim, or even their identity.

Thankfully, in this case we know from other information available to us (well, most of us), that the claim is highly unlikely to be true, and the person making such a claim is most probably a loonie, whose claims do not need to be taken seriously.

But in the case of Western reporting of events in Ukraine, such as the capture of the two Russian special operations soldiers on May 16, the word “allegedly” is used too freely, seemingly without regard to the probability of the claim of their capture or identity as serving Russian soldiers being true, or to the credibility of the source of the doubt being thrown on the claim – the Kremlin.

In fact, there is a mountain of already-available evidence that the claim that Ukraine has captured two members of a team of Russian special operations soldiers on its soil is true – with a probability more like 0.95/0.05.

True, the individual pieces of evidence that make up this mountain cannot each be proved with 100% certainty to be true, but taking all of the pieces together there is an overwhelming body of circumstantial evidence that Russia is directly participating in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and this renders the “alleged” capture of two of Russia’s commandos on Ukrainian soil very highly likely.

It should be reported as such. Not just “allegedly.”

As for the credibility of the source making the counter claim – the Kremlin – it is not adequate merely to report this counter claim without making some reference to the credibility of the source.

It is a matter of record and fact that the Kremlin, more specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin, has lied about Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine (recall Crimea). There is a great deal of evidence that the Kremlin is conducting a covert war in the east of Ukraine, in order to destabilize the country and keep it within Russia’s orbit. So Russian denials of the involvement of their military in the fighting in eastern Ukraine should be reported as scarcely credible.

Thus it is quite wrong at this point to use the word “allegedly” when reporting the recent capture of the Russian soldiers in Ukraine – there is not actually much doubt that these soldiers are indeed serving members of the Russian military, engaged in a Kremlin-orchestrated covert war against Ukraine. Neither should the reader of news reports be left in any doubt about the credibility of the Kremlin’s claims – they are not credible, and have been proved not to be credible many times.

So drop “allegedly.” This lazy word can’t do the work needed to properly inform news readers about what is actually happening in Ukraine. Its flabby semantics are of use only to Kremlin propagandists.


Euan MacDonald is a journalist living and working in Kyiv, Ukraine. He has worked for the Kyiv Post newspaper and Interfax-Ukraine news agency, and now works as editor of the UNIAN news agency’s English Web site. He is also a freelance broadcast journalist who has worked for for BBC and RTE radio, and various North American and Australian TV networks.


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