In the late fall of 2006, the Los Angeles Times, without fanfare, started to use the term “civil war,” but those words, and their implications, did not fully become national news or enter the national consciousness until late November. Then, after a particularly bloody few days in Iraq, NBC News decided to act. Richard Engel, an NBC reporter who has been in Iraq longer than any other American television correspondent, had long felt that the country was in a civil war. On Sunday, November 26, Alexandra Wallace, who was a vice president of NBC News, consulted Engel and anchor Brian Williams, as well as a group of military leaders and historians, in an effort to determine where “sectarian violence” ends and “civil war” begins. Their view was unanimous. NBC knew that its position would be controversial. But the news division was convinced that Iraq had become a civil war.

The next morning, host Matt Lauer announced on the Today show that NBC had made a formal decision to use that term. Recreating some of the elements of the discussion from the previous day, Lauer engaged in a lengthy on-air dialogue with retired general Barry McCaffrey, in which they discussed NBC’s decision, the meaning of the phrase “civil war,” and the arguments for and against applying that term to events on the ground in Iraq. Predictably, the White House protested. “While the situation on the ground is very serious,” a spokesman for the National Security Council told reporters on Air Force One as it was taking the president to meetings in the Middle East, neither Prime Minister Maliki nor the Bush White House “believe that Iraq is in a civil war.” Some conservative media critics went further, repeating the familiar charge that the press was really against American troops. “You have violent, out-of-control chaos, not civil war,” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly protested. “Of course, the American media is not helping anyone by oversimplifying the situation and rooting for the USA to lose in Iraq.”

But while the fight over the phrase “civil war” was largely treated as a political debate, and in some quarters as a political decision, it was, in fact, much more than that. In deciding what words to use to identify the conflict, NBC was helping to insure that its reporting was accurate.

Indeed, there are times when good journalists need to be as concerned with the accuracy of their language as they are with the accuracy of their facts. Unless the mainstream press uses the correct language to describe issues of public policy, then readers, viewers, and government leaders are unlikely to understand, discuss, and analyze them honestly and meaningfully.

Speaking on Meet the Press six months later, on June 10, 2007, former secretary of state Colin Powell offered an unapologetic appraisal of the situation when he declared: “I have characterized it as a civil war even though the administration does not call it that. And the reason I call it a civil war is I think that allows you to see clearly what we’re facing. We’re facing groups that are now fighting each other: Sunnis versus Shias, Shias versus Shias, Sunnis versus al Qaeda. And it is a civil war.” Secretary Powell went on to explain how the choice of words we use to understand the situation in Iraq relates directly to the policies we employ when he combined two particularly controversial rhetorical phrases—“civil war” and “surge”—in the following observation: “The current strategy to deal with it, called a surge—the military surge, our part of the surge under General Petraeus—the only thing it can do is put a heavier lid on this boiling pot of civil-war stew.”

Whereas a number of politicians and pundits were unprepared to engage in linguistic debate early in the war, by early 2007, when President Bush announced that he was planning to launch a “surge” in Iraq, they were ready to enter the rhetorical fray. As Jim Rutenberg reported in The New York Times on January 10, 2007, the day of Bush’s announcement: “This week has ushered in a new political battle over the language of the war: ‘Surge,’ meet ‘escalation.’”

Geoffrey Cowan is the former director of the Voice of America, the former dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and a university professor at the University of Southern California, where he holds the Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership.