Calendar Girl (kirilaw) wrote,
Calendar Girl
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The words we use: a rant

CanWest, Reuters, and the "terrorists"

Where do I start with this one? With the idea of journalistic ethics? The idea that it's wrong to misrepresent someone's words, and that it's just as wrong if you're misrepresenting what a news agency said rather than an individual? No, because as appalling as that is, that's not what really gets under my skin.

This rant is going to be about the word "terrorist". Consider yourself warned. Another caveat: I haven't read the Post editorial defending the changes, and it's subscription-only on their site, so I'm only reacting to what I've read in the Globe. I don't have the full story. But I do have lots of opinions. (Ha!)



The word "terrorist" is not a neutral word. Very few words are entirely neutral; they all have connotations that go beyond their literal meaning. Journalists have a particular responsibility to choose their words carefully for that very reason: the news (as distinguished from editorial and commentary) is, at least theoretically, neutral. It doesn't take sides, it just reports what happened. Now obviously, news is never truly neutral. There's always a point of view, and usually a value judgement. But neutrality is the goal. Or at least it was, once upon a time. Remember "fair and balanced"?

The word terrorist is a particularly inflammatory word. It's the word you use when you want to ensure that your audience realizes that these are Bad People (tm). Because everyone knows that the terrorists are the bad guys. The good guys are freedom fighters, or revolutionaries, or the Rebel Alliance. As soon as you call someone a terrorist, you are implicitly taking sides against them; you are saying that their cause is invalid, or at least that it doesn't warrant whatever actions they've taken. This connotation has become much stronger in recent years. I'm trying really hard to avoid using the phrase "post 9-11", but that's what it comes down to. Terrorists are the enemy now. Calling someone a terrorist puts them in a very specific category.

Reuters has an editorial policy to avoid the use of the word "terrorist" for precisely this reason: it's not a neutral word, and Reuters strives to be neutral. That's their job. To do otherwise would be irresponsible journalism.

Apparently, the Post doesn't see it that way. Apparently, words such as "militant", "insurgent", and "extremist" are "euphemisms". Only the word "terrorist" is adequately descriptive.

So they're changing the words in Reuters' news stories. Still crediting them to Reuters, of course. Lovely.

What the Post and other CanWest papers are doing is editing the news. They're slanting it, presenting a particular viewpoint.

I do recognize that nothing is truly neutral. And I acknowledge that I find this particularly egregious because it skews the Post away from my own ideological stance (bias alert!). But once again, the goal is to be neutral, because people should be able to read the news and form their own opinions about it. CanWest is trying to tell them what those opinions should be.

It is the responsibility of anyone who works with language to be extremely careful of the words they use. Words are powerful tools. They can be -- and have been -- used as weapons. They should not be treated lightly. What the Post and CanWest are doing is an abuse of the responsibility they hold as journalists and purveyors of the news.

Do I really need to expound any further on why I do not and will not buy the National Post?
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