The twin blasts at the Boston Marathon finish line Monday—which killed at least three people and injured dozens of others—were evocative of the what the world has come to see as terrorism in our post 9-11 world: destructive carnage at a high-profile venue.
But officials have been cautious about affixing the term “terrorism” to the event. “We’re not being definitive about this right now, but you can reach your own conclusions based on what happened,” Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis replied to a question posed shortly after the blasts about whether they were a terrorist attack. The fact that the experts are uncertain should send a message to journalists: Until we know who the perpetrators are or why they did it, apply the “t-word” with care.
“The media has no role, since it has no expertise, in determining whether an act is one of terrorism or not,” Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at Georgetown University, wrote in an email. “One thing is that they should resist pressing the authorities, pundits, and those who have specialized in studying terrorism for many decades to speculate on who may have done it and why.”
The best the media can do is wait until someone more qualified can make the determination, Hoffman added. Any rush to judgment can lead to mistakes such as attributing the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings to jihadis or the 1996 Atlanta Olympics blast to an innocent security guard.
Besides it being early in the investigation, journalists should be mindful that there isn’t even a consensus understanding of what terrorism actually is.
As Ezra Klein noted on Tuesday, the FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Nonetheless, “There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism,” according to the FBI document Klein cites.
“Everybody needs to be cautious. The term is thrown around way too liberally,” said Josh Meyer, who covered terrorism for the Los Angeles Times before teaching on the issue at the Medill School of Journalism. “It certainly is an act of horrific violence but it’s too early to call it an act of terrorism.”
Of course, sometimes media just can’t wait. CNN consciously made the decision to call the incident a “terrorist attack.”
CNN editorial decision: We will now call what happened in Boston a terrorist attack— RAGreeneCNN (@RAGreeneCNN) April 15, 2013
In a Web story, the network also acknowledged that a “law enforcement official said there was no specific suspect in the bombings and no leading theory on a motive.”
The New York Post declared an injured Saudi man questioned by authorities to be a potential terrorist, while across the Atlantic, papers like The Guardian called it a “terror” attack on its front page just hours after it happened.
Other outlets waited for someone authoritative like Obama to use the word. When the president didn’t say “terrorism” in his Monday evening public address on the blasts—a deliberate decision according to the White House, though Obama did acknowledge the next morning that “the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism,”—journalists analyzed the omission. NBC’s Chuck Todd had a good explanation of the president’s caution:
That doesn’t mean that [the White House doesn’t] believe and they aren’t treating this as an act of terror, but that they’re being very careful. And part of the reason why is that they—and the president himself seemed to emphasize this—is they still don’t know who did this, nor do they know the motivation. Is it an individual? Is it a group? Is it domestic? Is it international?
That uncertainty is troubling in a media environment where journalists seek answers instantaneously. That the US government is treating the investigation as an act of terror should neither come as a surprise nor does it illuminate our understanding of the attack. Simply put, we don’t know anything yet and, until we do, journalists should avoid applying a label that comes with a lot of historical and prejudice-related baggage.