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Word choice matters in Mideast reporting

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published August 31, 2003

What is the difference between a "militant" and a "terrorist"?

It's a question that editors around the country are struggling with as their news organizations come under increasing criticism for alleged bias in their coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I'm afraid Webster's New World Dictionary isn't much help. It defines militant this way: "at war, fighting . . . ready and willing to fight; especially vigorous or aggressive in support or promotion of a cause." A terrorist is "a person or thing causing intense fear" and uses "force or the threat of force to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate, esp. such use as a political weapon or policy . . ."

The madness in the Mideast is all of those things and more, and the words you find in Webster's don't begin to describe just how horrible the terrorism and the military retaliation that follows each suicide bomber's success is in the daily lives of the Israelis and the Palestinians. When a Palestinian suicide bomber recently boarded a bus in Jerusalem and blew 20 men, women and children to bits, most of the wire service reports I saw, including one from the Associated Press, said the carnage was the work of Palestinian "militants."

By that standard, I suppose Osama bin Laden is a militant, as was Mohammed Atta, who led the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York and Washington. And President Bush's war on terrorism is really a war on militancy.

For me, it's not a hard call. Acts of terror are committed by terrorists, and the horrific bus attack on Israeli civilians, like the dozens of suicide bombings that preceded it, was an act of cold, indiscriminate terror. So why do so many news organizations insist on describing terrorists as militants? I don't think militants set out to deliberately kill children.

Dr. Bruce Epstein wonders if the St. Petersburg Times is part of the problem, intentionally or not. In a recent letter, this Pinellas County physician complained that newspapers appear to want to "legitimatize" Palestinian terrorists by describing them as militants. I happen to believe the Palestinian cause - an independent and free Palestinian state - is legitimate and that the Palestinian people do have legitimate grievances over the Israeli occupation. That said, I believe Epstein raises a fair question about news coverage of Mideast violence. He objected in particular to a recent headline in the Times on a story about the assassination of a senior leader of the Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group - "Militant's death sparks vengeance threats." He later noticed another headline - "Dealer sympathized with terrorists." That headline was on a story about the arrest of a man in the New York area who was trying to sell surface-to-air missiles to terrorists (they turned out to be undercover agents) to bring down U.S. commercial airliners.

Epstein writes: "In my mind, this double standard is both appalling and disturbing. If Americans are killed in a terror attack, the killers are called terrorists. If Jewish Israelis are killed in a terror attack, the killers are called militants. . . . By using the word "militant' to describe a terrorist, the Times legitimizes the terrorist. When the Times substitutes the word "militant' for terrorist, the newspaper conveys to its readers that these Palestinian (terrorist) groups are legal, legitimate and even moral."

Contrary to what Epstein and other readers suggest, the Times has no such motive or policy. It needs a policy on how to distinguish a militant from a terrorist, and newsroom editors are in the process of drafting one, as are editors at other newspapers around the country.

The Orlando Sentinel has been getting similar complaints from readers, and earlier this year its style committee reviewed the use of militant and terrorist and came up with this standard: "Use caution when using these terms (militants, terrorists), which can show bias toward one side in a conflict. Generally, "bombers', "attackers', or "suicide bombers' are preferred terms."

Manning Pynn, the Sentinel's public editor, recently wrote that despite the style committee decision, the paper will continue to use "militant" to describe Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, both of which are on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. "The term "terrorist' certainly expresses judgment: It imputes to the person or organization being described the motive of trying to instill fear. "Militant' seems to me much more neutral," Pynn wrote.

Foolish me. I thought instilling fear is exactly what Hamas and Islamic Jihad mean to do when they send their suicide bombers into markets, restaurants and buses to kill and terrorize Israeli civilians. I'm all for fair and balanced reporting (I hope the Fox cable news network doesn't slap me with a lawsuit for trademark infringement), but I also believe that words do matter. And if the word "terrorism" is to have any real meaning, then blowing up a bus crowded with women and children must be condemned for what it is - an act of terrorism.

[Last modified August 31, 2003, 01:47:13]


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