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April 14, 2016

‘I Say Terrorist, I Say Militant’: The Washington Post Talks to Itself

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Washington Post articles “France, not Brussels, was terrorists’ initial target, Belgian prosecutor says” (April 11, 2016) and “U.S. drone strike in Somalia targets senior member of militant group; Al-Shabab figure was said to be behind attacks” (April 2) covered episodes in what sometimes is still called the “global war on terrorism.” The former dispatch used the words “terrorist” or “terrorists” once in the headline and four times in the text in The Post’s own words, twice in direct quotes. It did not mention “militant” or “militants.”

But the latter defaulted to “militant” once in the headline and twice in the text in the newspaper’s own voice. This article did not mention terrorist or terrorists.

Reporting from Paris, Post correspondent James McAuley opened with “the terrorists who carried out the March 22 attacks on the Brussels airport and metro initially planned an attack on France instead, the Belgian federal prosecutor announced Sunday. A cell of terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State largely conceived and executed November’s attacks on Paris from the Belgian capital, where many of them were
reared.”

Reporter Dan Lamothe’s first paragraph read “the U.S. military carried out a drone strike in Somalia on Thursday against a senior member of the al-Shabab militant [emphases added] group who has overseen attacks resulting in the deaths of at least three U.S. citizens, Pentagon officials said Friday.”

McAuley filed for The Post’s foreign desk, Lamothe apparently for the national desk, but inconsistent “terrorist”/“militant” usage within as well as between departments is not uncommon.

Does it matter? As CAMERA has noted many times, words are journalists’ principle stock in trade. For journalists’ products to be credible, words must be accurately, precisely used.

According to U.S. law, people who threaten or use force against non-combatants to influence larger audiences, including governments, on behalf of ideological, religious, economic or other agendas are terrorists. In American history, militant traditionally has described aggressive activists on behalf of a cause: anti-slavery, anti-alcohol, pro-women’s suffrage, labor unions, and environmentalism. They rarely kill anyone, and virtually never civilians.

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell warned that political—as opposed to journalistic—language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

When it comes to terrorist-versus-militant, The Washington Post—and many if not most other news outlets—would improve credibility by allowing the pure wind of “militant” to die away.

Posted by ER at April 14, 2016 03:43 PM

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