It’s a start. Yet just avoiding words is not enough. Conflict journalists need to be aware of words: where language comes from, what it means, who benefits by its use, and what it obscures. We especially need to consider these issues as we cover the heated rhetoric over Iran’s nuclear program. For example, many in the media confuse preemptive and preventive wars, although the two are quite different. A preventive war is initiated to destroy the potential threat of an attack by an enemy. This entails suspicion of an eventual assault, rather than one that is actually proven to be planned or imminent. By contrast, a preemptive war is launched in anticipation of immediate aggression, amid clear signs that the other side is going to attack.

The launch of conflict when no attack has occurred is a violation of international law, unless authorized by the UN Security Council. A preemptive strike is seen as justifiable, however, which is why the Bush administration strained to describe the 2003 invasion of Iraq as such. In the case of Iran, we lack indisputable evidence that an attack on Israel or anyone else is “imminent.” It is simply a fear—a well-founded one, perhaps, but nothing as solid as the proof of troop mobilization on the border when Israel struck against Egypt in the Six Day War in 1967.

We, as well as the public, must understand how and why language gets twisted by those who would market war. Those in favor of attacking Iran would like to sell any potential assault as a preemptive war. But unless it fits the criteria, journalists should remain wary.

Let’s not forget that war can be an abstraction to politicians, but not to those who fight and live through it. To soldiers and conflict-zone residents, war is bloody and devastating, and it’s hard for news consumers to realize this when the stories they read are stuffed with bloodless clichés. Conflict reporters often are the only neutral parties on hand during a skirmish; if they don’t accurately report an event, it might never be reported at all. If a society wants to support a war, so be it. But, as journalists, let’s do our best to report these conflicts with precision and clarity, so that people know exactly what they’re supporting.


Judith Matloff is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is a veteran foreign correspondent, who teaches a course on conflict reporting at Columbia, and is the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.