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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics: Clarifying terrifying terms



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Monday, August 28, 2017
Ethics: Clarifying terrifying terms

Ethics Toolbox

By Andrew M. Seaman

Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Micah David-Cole Fletcher were stabbed May 26 when they attempted to stop a man from harassing two teens with racist and anti-Muslim rants on a train in Portland, Oregon. Best and Namkai-Meche died.

A lot of the attention on social media following the attack centered on the news media’s use or avoidance of the word “terrorism” in discussing the events. People rightly pointed out that media organizations are quick to bring up the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” unless the suspected perpetrator is white. A rational person may wonder whether the terms are inherently racist.

The inconsistency of their uses, their vagueness and their divisiveness should make journalists and news organizations question their use of the words “terrorism” and terrorist.”

The purpose of journalism is to provide people with accurate, reliable, truthful information. If people spend a large chunk of their time debating the use or misuse of a word or two in that reporting, there is a problem.

Similar issues exist for terms like “fake news” and “illegal immigrant.” Many stories containing those words end up being less effective due to many people debating the terminology.

As happened in the Portland attack, a lot of public time and attention focused on the use of “terrorism” instead on other details in the story. Additionally, invoking the term may confuse people about the actual events.

Journalists and news organization should describe events and the perpetrators’ motivations as specifically as possible, such as white supremacy or religious extremism. When those factors aren’t known, journalists and news organizations should be forthright with the public. They shouldn’t speculate about the motivation, and they shouldn’t throw around the word “terrorism.”

There is precedence for avoiding the terms. Reuters, the international news agency and my employer, says its journalists may refer generally to terrorists and terrorism, “but do not refer to specific events as terrorism.” Some other organizations issue similar guidance to their journalists.

One issue surrounding the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” is the lack of a universal definition shared by news organizations. The terms may vary by style book, dictionary and country. Again, this leads to confusion.

For example, the U.S. government breaks the definition of terrorism into international and domestic, but it broadly defines the act as something that jeopardizes human life. Additionally, it must be an act that intimidates or coerces people, influences government policy through those means or disrupts government through killing, kidnapping or destruction.

As a result of the U.S. government and other countries having their own definitions of terrorism, it’s appropriate to use the term — with proper context — when quoting officials or citing documents.

The words journalists use can obviously become hot-button issues. In fact, SPJ is targeted from time to time by people on social media over how journalists report on mass casualty events and whether they should be described as “terrorism.”

The avoidance of the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” should not be interpreted as protecting the feelings of people who commit terrible acts of violence. Instead, avoiding those words should be seen as a way to improve the stories journalists are producing for the public — to provide clarity and accuracy.

People need to be informed about the world around them, especially if public safety is compromised. One of the factors journalists and news organizations must keep in mind is how to get that message across accurately, compassionately and as directly as possible. If people are focused on the words “terrorist” or “terrorism,” it’s often difficult to accomplish that goal.

Andrew M. Seaman is chairperson of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a health reporter for Reuters. On Twitter: @andrewmseaman

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