Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Covering the standoff: Should journalists use "terrorists"?

Regardless of what one thinks of the armed men who have taken over a wildlife refuge building in Oregon, a peace journalist would be very careful about the language they use to describe the occupiers, especially when it comes to using the term terrorist.

The New York Times, Washington Post, and others have begun a spirited debate about whether they occupiers are terrorists, and whether responsible media should use this term.

What is a terrorist? According to the FBI’s criteria, terrorism:
1. Involves violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
2. Appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. (From Peace Journalism: Principles and Practice, Routledge, 2016).

It is clear that occupying the refuge building violates the law. It also seems clear that this action is designed to influence government policy. To be fair, other definitions also include violence or threat of violence. So far, this action has been non-violent, although there have been veiled threats of possible violence should authorities storm the facility. Thus, a reasonable person could logically conclude that the occupiers are terrorists, though this is debatable.

Given this, are the media labeling the occupiers terrorists? A Lexix Nexis search of newspapers since the siege (1-2 to 1-5) reveals 991 hits for “Oregon Wildlife Refuge.” Of these, 12 stories use the term extremist, 10 militants, 52 activists, 79 militia, 65 protesters, and 21 terrorist. Digging into the terrorist articles, it appears that most are articles just like this one—analytical pieces about whether they should be called terrorists, or pieces that ponder how the situation would be unfolding differently if the occupiers were black or Muslim.

A second study done in the Washington Post looked at 15 major media outlets. It showed that 6 used the term militia, 6 armed protesters or armed activists, 1 militants, 1 gunmen, and 1 armed group.

The conclusion: the media aren’t labeling the occupiers terrorists, even though they would be justified in doing so.

From a peace journalism standpoint, this reluctance to use the term terrorist is laudable. “A peace journalist should avoid using the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” since they seldom add anything but emotion to a story. In an interview, Dr. Johan Galtung, father of peace journalism, said the word is loaded with meaning. “When you say terrorism, you issue a declaration –listen to me, these are just evil people, and the solution is to crush them,” he noted.” (From Peace Journalism: Principles and Practice, Routledge, 2016).

Also laudable is the debate in the media about how this situation would be different if the occupiers weren’t white, Christian conservatives. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine how the media coverage, and the official response, wouldn’t be considerably different if the occupiers were black, Latino, or Muslim.

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