Fighting words

How war reporters can resist the loaded language of their beat
September 11, 2012

Last year, I visited Bogotá, Colombia, to teach a seminar on conflict reporting. Afterward, a soldier missing two legs and most of one arm rolled up in a wheelchair. As we spoke about land mines and their evils, I asked where his “accident” had occurred. My choice of words provoked a fierce outburst from the soldier, whose voice sounded strangled as he asserted that he had been maimed not by a random mishap, but by a premeditated attack.

“Landmines aren’t placed by chance,” he explained as if I were a small child—which was how I felt at that moment. “Someone sought to kill me.”

The woman pushing his wheelchair added, “You really should mind your language.”

She was right. For that is what we journalists covering armed confrontations must remember to do. Words are weapons, as much as any gun or bomb, and you’d better believe that governments treat the language they use to describe a war as seriously as they take the war itself. A phrase can create an image of righteous strength to replace fear and trauma, as we saw with “Operation Freedom.” Similarly, clashes can be described in neutered terms that normalize violence and blunt the impact of war. From the tame “regime change,” with its implications of order instead of violent overthrow, to the false “victory” in Iraq claimed by George W. Bush, words embed themselves in the national psyche and affect public perception of conflict and its consequences.

This isn’t a new problem. Almost 70 years ago, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell observed how governments manipulated public opinion by describing violent, inhumane policies in imprecise, euphemistic terms. “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification,” wrote Orwell. “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

In 2007, CJR devoted an entire issue to the uses and abuses of political and martial rhetoric. Almost five years later, the topic bears revisiting. Conflict reportage ought to give an accurate picture of war and its costs, to counteract official euphemisms with clarity and precision. But too often, reporters veil the stark, uncomfortable truths of combat in opaque language and terminology. As we prepare to leave Afghanistan, possibly enter Iran, and intervene in myriad other conflicts, and as political rhetoric surrounding these conflicts amps up in the final days of the American presidential campaign, editors and reporters must do their best to reclaim vocabulary from those who would use it to obscure and mislead.

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Spend any time in a combat zone or triage ward and you’ll realize that, at its most basic level, war is carnage. Yet the words that officials use to describe conflict are chosen to minimize this fact, either by portraying the violence in bland, neutral terms, or with language designed to stoke feelings of anger and revenge.

It’s no surprise that governments and political interests want to frame conflicts in ways that are most favorable to their own goals and objectives. Covering conflict often entails hanging around political and military officials—at briefings, at press conferences, during embeds—and reporters can absorb the jargon without even realizing it. These sterile euphemisms are familiar to any news consumer. The sanitized and manipulative “collateral damage” refers to an unintended killing of civilians; one has to look beyond the words to photographs of massacred wedding parties to fully understand what actually happened. The phrase “smart bomb” conveys intelligence instead of carnage. My 11-year-old son was astounded to hear that “friendly fire” was not friendly at all. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he nearly spat when he learned the definition: killing fellow troops by accident. “I thought it meant you shot at but didn’t hurt someone. Why don’t they just say it’s like a home goal?”

Other times, officials want to inflame rhetoric rather than defuse it. In 2008, a US government memo counseled personnel to avoid using words that have a positive association for many Muslims, such as “mujahidin,” “salafi,” “ummah,” and “jihadi.” It prescribes instead such English phrases as “terrorists,” “extremists,” and “totalitarians.” During the 50 years of Basque separatist uprising, the Spanish government tried to convince journalists not to describe the violence as a “conflict.” To deploy that word would legitimize the ETA guerrillas, whom Madrid generally prefers to call “criminals.” Similarly, during Angola’s 27-year civil war, the government often described UNITA rebels as “bandits,” a trivializing expression for a formidable force that was amply armed by the US and South Africa.

The more obvious propaganda often escapes us purely because we’re so immersed in it. It took an Iraqi acquaintance to make me realize that, early in the Iraq war, The New York Times and other papers misused the word “insurgents” for people who attacked US troops. The term lent our side more legitimacy than it legally deserved. If Webster’s is to be believed, insurgents rise up against a recognized authority, and not against an occupying force that defied international law by invading.

Reuters, which prides itself on being the only true internationalist news organization, made a point of banning the word “terrorist” in reference to the September 11 attacks, with the argument that one man’s murderous extremist is another’s freedom fighter. The news agency aims to avoid emotive labels so that customers can come to their own conclusions based on facts. Reuters’ decision highlights what is, perhaps, an obvious point: The way conflict stories are written can substantially affect the public debate around those conflicts. Words matter.

Vocabulary twists apply to other types of violence, too. In Mexico, a “drug war”—an inherently debatable term itself—being waged between rival gangs and against authorities and the public has killed more than 47,000 people over six years. Officials usually avoid the phrase “drug cartels,” and instead refer to the syndicates as “organized crime.” The phrase doesn’t adequately convey the grisly methods of the drug gangs. One thinks of money laundering and numbers-running, not vicious groups that hang mutilated bodies from bridges and leave severed heads on streets.

Yet the media are beginning to consider their de facto role as propagandists who unwittingly help normalize violence. Last year, many of Mexico’s biggest media outlets signed a voluntary agreement to refrain from adopting the “language and terminology used by criminals” in order to avoid becoming “unwilling spokesmen” for the drug gangsters.

The pact left it to individual newsrooms to decide for themselves which words and phrases to shun. During a gathering earlier this year in Ciudad Juarez, the border town that has long been the epicenter of drug-related homicides, reporters debated the appropriate verb for “kidnap.” Until now, common usage was the passive and tame construction se levantó, or “lifted.”

“That implies no one was responsible,” one senior reporter argued. “We should use more direct language like secuestró—abducted.” The assembled journalists nodded, and then quickly requested anonymity so as to avoid reprisals.

Likewise, they discussed the prefix narco, which Mexicans place in front of anything relating to drug lords. It often has an allure for impoverished youths impressed by the glitzy lifestyle. Reporters at the meeting weighed the glamorous associations of terms like narco Polo (fancy dude who wears designer labels), narc-architectura (mansions), and narco zoos (kingpins have a predilection for exotic pets).

“Maybe we should just ban narco,” someone mused.

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 teaches conflict reporting at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She's the author of two books on conflict, Fragments of a Forgotten War and No Friends But the Mountains, as well as a manual for journalists covering dangerous stories, How to Drag a Body.