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Editor's note: How we talk about executions


Updated Nov. 18, 1 p.m.

Lately, we've received some comments about the words our news team uses on the air and online in reporting about executions.

When talking about executions, we use a variety of terms interchangeably, often in the same story: the word "kill" as well as "execute," even the phrases "put to death" or "carry out the sentence."

It is our use of "kill" that has caught some listeners' and readers' attention.

Journalism is about finding the truth. When we say and write "kill," we are doing so objectively. It is an unavoidable fact that when a person is executed, they are killed. We don’t see a reason to fall back on euphemisms in every instance.

Julius Jones was scheduled to die today. If Gov. Kevin Stitt had not acted on the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board's recommendations to grant him clemency, an execution team would have strapped him to a gurney and killed him by injecting three drugs into his veins.

Those are just the plain facts about what would happen.

Before John Marion Grant was killed by lethal injection on Oct. 28, Oklahoma had not executed anyone since Charles Warner in January 2015. Warner was denied a stay, and it was later discovered the state used a drug not in its protocol to kill him. I was at the state penitentiary when Warner was put to death but not in the execution chamber.

Warner's sentence was supposed to be carried out the same day in April 2014 as the last man put to death before him, Clayton Lockett.

I was a witness to Lockett's execution, which is widely described as "botched" because those carrying out the sentence did not properly place the needle delivering the drugs being used to kill him. It took more than 40 minutes for Lockett to die, as much as seven times longer than it had taken inmates put to death before him to be pronounced dead.

Lockett writhed on the gurney, lifting his head and speaking at times, after the execution team determined he was unconscious.

Looking back, we did not use the word "kill" when I covered those executions, but that wasn't because our news director prescribed a policy on terms to use. Most people, including me, were more comfortable talking about executions in euphemisms. But if journalists are supposed to hold those in power accountable, it seems like we're shirking our responsibility if we shy away from accurate yet striking terms to talk about their authority to kill someone as punishment for a crime.

As news director, I have not set a policy for how we talk about executions, either. I did set a precedent; it appears I was the first one to use the word "kill" in a story, in September. That use was not an opinion on what happened to Warner in 2015. It's what happened.

I trust my reporters to also tell you the truth of what happened.

Your comments are welcome at matt-trotter@publicmediatulsa.org.

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