Why Al Jazeera America doesn't use the word 'terrorist'

An Al Jazeera America memo urged reporters to avoid using the words 'terrorist,' 'Islamist,' and 'extremist,' drawing criticism from some conservatives.

Osama Faisal/FILE/AP
Staff members of Al-Jazeera work at the news studio in Doha, Qatar, Jan. 1, 2015. Al Jazeera America is facing some heat from conservatives for banning their anchors for using words like "terrorist" during broadcasts.

If you watch Al Jazeera America, you might notice their reporters refraining from using the some of the common labels that frame the War on Terror.

The National Review reported that, in wake of the deadly shooting at a Libyan hotel that left nine people dead, Al Jazeera executives ordered their on-camera anchors to avoid using certain words, including "terrorist" and "Islamist." Some conservative bloggers see this as a sign that the Qatari-sponsored Al Jazeera sympathizes with Muslims who commit acts of violence.

But there is a case to be made for avoiding labels like these, says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute. “We live in a politically polarized environment,” he says. “In an ideological war one side or another will try to use language as a weapon. If you’re writing a report, one of the things reporters are taught to avoid is loaded language.”

In Mr. Clark’s estimation, Al Jazeera’s move is an attempt to frame the War on Terror and its many theaters back toward as neutral a conversation as possible. The reported “banned” terms from the email obtained by National Review are not actually banned from the air, notes Mr. Clark. Instead, Al Jazeera anchors are not allowed to use the words as descriptive terms, but they are permitted to reference or play clips of others using them.

One way for news organizations to avoid employing any labels whatsoever would be to describe actions in enough detail so the viewer or reader will have a full working knowledge of the black and white facts of what transpired, says Clark. That leaves audiences to fill in the news event with their own personal views.

For example, someone cutting off another person’s head, says Clark, is terrifying enough. There is little need to frame such an action in an ideological context. 

“What you call something determines how the public understands it,” Mr. Clark says.

Al Jazeera is not alone in eschewing "terrorist." Reporters with the London-based news agency Reuters do not use the term in their stories, but will quote the word if a source uses it.

"Our editorial policy is that we don't use emotive words when labeling someone," said David A. Schlesinger, former Reuters' global managing editor told the New York Times in 2004. A chain of Canadian newspapers had changed Reuters copy from "insurgents" to "terrorists." "Any paper can change copy and do whatever they want. But if a paper wants to change our copy that way, we would be more comfortable if they remove the byline." 

Labels have given the War on Terror – a war in whose name itself includes a label – its own vocabulary. Therefore, Al Jazeera being attacked for choosing to be more restrictive in labeling behavior is a move toward greater neutrality, not less, says Philip Seib, Vice Dean and professor at the University of Southern California’s Anneberg School for Communication and Journalism.  

"A guideline requiring care in applying labels by no means equates with being 'soft on terrorism' or any such thing,” Mr. Seib says.  “It really is a mandate for careful, precise journalism, which is a good cause.”

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