When is 'terrorist' a subjective term?

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On Sept. 11, the US was attacked by terrorists.

To many Americans, that seems like an obvious statement. But that sentence would be edited if it appeared in a story filed to Reuters, the London-based international wire service. "Terrorist" is considered an emotive term by the news organization, and its use is avoided. "We do not characterize the subjects of news stories but instead report their actions, identity, and background," it said in a statement on Tuesday.

Reuters has had to defend its long-standing practice after The Washington Post reported Monday that the wire service avoids "terrorist" to keep a level playing field for the people it covers - letting readers judge for themselves - and to protect reporters in hot spots such as Afghanistan. On its website, the wire service says it prefers more specific words such as gunman and bomber. In a Sept. 25 article, recent events were described as "suicide plane attacks."

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"We've taken a lot of heat on this," says Stephen Jukes, head of news at Reuters. On Tuesday, he said a critics were at "the wrong end of the stick on this."

Reuters' approach doesn't sit well with some journalists, who say it amounts to self-censorship. They also argue that it's inaccurate. "Journalism should be about telling the truth. And when you don't call this a terrorist attack, you're not telling the truth," says Rich Noyes, director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center. "A news organization's responsibility is to find the facts ... not to play politics with its reporting."

Fueling the debate is the complex situation in the Middle East, where "terrorism" to one group is "self-defense" to another -a topic the Monitor explored in a July 31 article, "In Mideast, one weapon of choice is a loaded word."

On Sunday, New York Times columnist William Safire wrote that the word "terrorist" has its roots in the Latin terrere, which means "to frighten." The French were the first to coin the term, he says. Like others, he views it as the only word to use for the attackers, one that should not be avoided or euphemized. "The most precise word to describe a person or group who murders even one innocent civilian to send a political message is terrorist," he writes.

But as the reporting on Sept. 11 moves out of its initial absolutes and into more complex territory, some journalists see a need for thoughtfulness. "I'm not sure they [Reuters] are making a mistake," says Geneva Overholser, former editor of The Des Moines Register and now a syndicated columnist. "Our professional strictures require us to give thoughtful consideration to matters that our fellow citizens would simply make an emotional decision on."

Of concern to religion reporters -and scholars -is the use of "Islamic" in front of "terrorist." This week the Religion Newswriters Association urged journalists not to use words that associate an entire religion with the acts of a few.

Some scholars suggest using very precise language, describing the attackers in terms of the criminal and fanatical nature of their actions. "You want to create a wedge that will make it possible for world Muslims to disassociate themselves from these people," says Edmund Burke III, a professor of Middle East history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "Going after the criminality of the behavior and not what goes on in people's minds is the way to go."

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