The case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen detained under suspicion of terrorism and deported to Syria, allegations later proved to be unfounded, recently made headlines when the RCMP apologized for their mishandling of the file.

The problem with how the Arar saga progressed was that in the minds of Canadians reading reports of the case, Arar went from being a “terrorist” to an average guy who was falsely accused and mistreated.

For a system that bases its criminal law on the premise of innocence before guilt, it is worth examining how regularly cases like Arar’s occur. From terror suspects such as those arrested in Toronto over the summer to suspects sought in gang shootings, our tendency as a newspaper-reading society is at times to assume guilt and change our minds only if proven wrong later.

Guilty until proven innocent is no way to run a justice system, and we must consider the role of the media-which is where the public usually gets their information about criminal cases-in how suspects are portrayed.

The media both tries to correct and inadvertently (though sometimes intentionally) adds to the problem of the average reader assuming guilt before due process has taken its course. Newspapers regularly use words like “allegedly” or “suspected” when describing crimes or suspects as a way of reminding readers that, regardless of the evidence or the circumstances, everyone has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

There are numerous reasons why the media takes pains to present suspects as innocent even in cases that appear to be a slam dunk, when labeling the accused as guilty might sell more papers. Most obviously, it is irresponsible journalism to convict someone in the media before a judge does in court-jumping the gun in that way shows disrespect for the legal process and could prejudice jurors and public opinion against the accused, or even against entire sections of the population.

More pragmatically, media outlets are careful to avoid libel lawsuits from those wrongfully accused or inaccurately portrayed.

In an ideal world, readers would see phrases like “the alleged homicide” and process the fact that although someone has died, it is unwise to label it a murder unless there is a conviction or a police investigation declares it as such.

Unfortunately, though understandably, readers (and writers as well) rely on common sense more than legal niceties to interpret events. The average reader eventually passes over words like “allegedly” since they are always used to describe incidents of crime or terror. In the minds of readers, “suspected” can become “actual,” and “alleged” can mean “he did it.” The regular and responsible use of language that stresses a person’s innocence until proven guilty has ironically desensitized readers to that very same legal principle.

How often have we read a report out of Afghanistan in which “alleged Taliban fighters” are killed in a gun battle with Canadian troops? We all but assume that they are indeed Taliban forces, despite that little warning word which reminds us that there could be another explanation, and that we don’t know all the facts.

The media can play on our assumptions as well; while reporters might stress that there has not been a conviction, the suggestive headlines and details chosen for the story can imply that the accused is guilty.

While it is frustrating sometimes that nothing ever seems to actually happen in the press, but instead is only “alleged” to have happened, it’s worth suspending our assumptions about events and truly considering the stories we read, or else we risk mistakenly convicting future Maher Arars despite our better judgment.