Sunday, March 27, 2011

Call me old-fashioned

A commenter posting under the name “Anonymous” asked me to address a line in a Reuters article about the Jerusalem bombing which killed one and wounded dozens on Wednesday.
The line, in the fourth paragraph of the story, reads:

Police said it was a "terrorist attack" -- Israel's term for a Palestinian strike.
This line came to my attention after journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, writing on his blog at The Atlantic, decried Reuters’ wording in a post titled “Dear Reuters, You Must Be Kidding”:
Those Israelis and their crazy terms! I mean, referring to a fatal bombing of civilians as a "terrorist attack"? Who are they kidding? Everyone knows that a fatal bombing of Israeli civilians should be referred to as a "teachable moment." Or as a "venting of certain frustrations." Or as "an understandable reaction to Jewish perfidy." Or perhaps as "a very special episode of 'Cheers.'" Anything but "a terrorist attack." I suppose Reuters will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by referring to the attacks as "an exercise in urban renewal."
The mind reels.
I soon saw links posted to Goldberg’s blog by friends of mine on Facebook, and one posted it to my wall, asking me to inveigh on the issue.

But first, a caveat:

The writer is not authorized to speak on behalf of Reuters. The opinions stated on this blog are that of the author alone.

Reuters has a simple rule, that I like, regarding the modifier "terrorist:" we only use it when we're quoting someone using it. I don't know why editors established this directive, but as a journalist I respect it for two reasons:

1. The word “terrorist” speaks to motives, and while motives may be obvious in the case of a bomb placed in a civilian area where we've seen a previous pattern of bomb attacks claimed proudly by organizations committed to using bloody and murderous violence in pursuit of political goals, we don't report on motives until the motivated announce it themselves, or others opine on the motives. In the meantime, we use other, better descriptors. Like "bomb," "exploded," "killing a woman," "shattering the windows of a nearby bus," and "coincided with an upsurge in violence on the Gaza border." We let Israeli and Palestinian officials, our readers around the world, and bloggers at the Atlantic call it terrorism. This defense sounds like effete equivocation. But it's also consistent and responsible.

2. Words have meanings, and words have meanings in different contexts. Rather than engage in a debate over whether "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," I think Reuters decided to let readers debate this issue. Our readers across the globe can label the parties to an action like this however they wish. If they identify with the sort of individuals who detonate an explosive device aimed at killing commuters purely because those commuters are Israeli and Jewish, Reuters don't let those readers off the hook by glorifying this action or justifying it. We just describe it.

I don’t have anything more to add to this subject. I’ve never covered a terrorist attack, or written about one for a news organization, so I’ve not been party to the editorial process that goes into crafting a piece like this.

The only comparison I can draw on comes from my time covering homicide in New York City. When a 13-year-old boy is hit in the head by a stray bullet at a Harlem block party after a dispute breaks out between gang members, I attributed the details of the shooting to detectives on the scene. “Stray bullet leaves 13-year-old in critical condition, police say” is the headline. The person arrested for this crime isn’t called the shooter, he or she is called the alleged shooter, or the suspect.

This experience reinforces for me the rule Reuters has about using a loaded term like terrorist. Call me old-fashioned (I’ve been doing this journo stuff for serious for a whopping five years) but that’s where I come from.

Now, purely as a reader, I wonder about something else in that line of Reuters copy: "Israel's term for a Palestinian strike."

First, I think Israel uses the term "terrorist attack" to describe bombs in civilian areas like this almost everywhere around the world (except maybe when they kill folks like Imad Mughniye and Iranian nuclear scientists), and second, "Palestinian strike" sounds like civil unrest and violence, harking back to the Palestinian General Strike against the British Mandate and the Yishuv in 1936-1939.

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