While there are several slightly different definitions of terrorism, most of them specify that terrorist attacks are attacks against innocent people launched by individuals or organizations to further a political or religious agenda by intimidating a civilian population.
Terrorism exists, and I don’t think there are many people who are in doubt as to its meaning. When a 13 year old girl is murdered in her bed by someone who has never met her but believes that killing her promotes the Palestinian cause, it’s terrorism. Even people who are not sympathetic to Israel’s case lose all credibility if they deny that such attacks amount to terrorism.
Government and law enforcement agencies around the world use the term and identify groups that espouse terrorism. When a violent attack against innocents takes place, the first question people want to know is whether it is terrorism.
So it is no surprise that terrorist attacks are being featured in the media more and more. What is strange is that many in the media continue to cling to style guides that put the word “terrorism” off limits in most situations. (See “Terrorism in the Media” for more background.)
One prominent journalist explained to me that the word is a “loaded term that means lots of things to lots of people.” But I don’t really think that lots of people have a concept of terrorism that is all that different.
What does a prominent news company do when they are attempting to provide news about an attack that many people are calling terrorism?
Take one of the recent New York Times articles on the bombing spree of Ahmad Khan Rahami. It’s a good case to examine because you can see the Times trying to avoid using the word in it’s own voice, but slipping up.
The article “Keep an Eye on Him,” Ahmad Khan Rahami’s Father Said He Told the FBI” includes the word “terrorism” or “terrorist” a total of ten times.
They have to. Everyone involved in the case, from Rahami’s father to the police to the FBI are using the word. So the Times attempts to distance itself from the term by trying to only use it in quotations like:
Mr. Rahami called his son a “terrorist” when talking to local police,
That’s safe ground. They have put the word in quotation marks which makes it clear that this was Rahami’s father’s characterization, not the position of the Times.
Then, the word is used twice more by Rahami’s father in describing conversations he had with the FBI.
“I told the F.B.I. to keep an eye on him,” he said. “They said, ‘Is he a terrorist?’ I said: ‘I don’t know. I can’t guarantee you 100 percent if he is a terrorist. I don’t know which groups he is in. I can’t tell you.’”
This uses a quotation within a quotation. Rahami’s father is quoting the FBI’s use of the word “terrorist.” While the Times can still maintain that it does not use the word, this is an admission that the FBI has no such reservations. Can a news company really avoid an issue that the FBI talks about?
Sometimes the Times does not have a direct quote, but attributes the reference to a source.
…two years ago, he warned federal agents explicitly about his son’s interest in terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and his fascination with jihadist music, poetry and videos.
It’s a little unclear. Since this is not from a direct quotation, we don’t really know who is calling Al Qaeda a terrorist organization, Rahami’s father or the Times?
Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that this was still a description from the father.
But then what do we make of the following:
Investigators are focused on the time that he spent abroad and are looking into whether he received any training in bomb-making and whether he is connected to any wider terrorist network.
This is in the Times’ own voice. They do not use either a direct quotation or even an indirect summary (such as “Investigators said they were looking into a connection with a terrorist network.”)
The Times has no choice but to write that there are indeed such things as “terrorist” networks.
But that begs the question, who are these networks? ISIS? Al Qaeda? Maybe Hamas, which the United States State Department and the European Union among many others have labeled a “terrorist” organization.
It seems reasonable to expect that if the Times writes about the existence of networks of terrorists, then they should not be afraid to use that label when referring to an organization identified the world over in that way.
I am sure that the Times would have preferred to leave the word out of the story on Rahami’s father, but doing so was not possible.
The example shows just how difficult it is to set a word off-limits, especially when that word is becoming more and more a part of the global conversation.
Terrorism is not a dirty word and the media should adopt the same definition that many governments use. That way they have a defense against those who accuse them of using the word to promote a partisan political agenda.
And then, when a terrorist attack takes place, whether in the streets of New York or Jerusalem, they would be able to provide their readers with the most accurate description.