Talking about terrorists and terrorism

The complainant, Bruce McMinn, questioned why CBC reports on the attack and siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya did not refer to the perpetrators as terrorists or the attack as a “terrorist attack.” He thought the use of words like militants were “milquetoast,” and wanted assurance from now on the words terrorist and terrorism would be used when applicable. I explained that CBC, like some other major media organizations, use those terms when attributed by others. The review explains more of the thinking behind that decision.

COMPLAINT

You were angered by the use of the word “militants” to describe the gunmen who attacked a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack on Westgate Mall on September 21 resulted in a four-day siege and a significant loss of life. Al-Shabab, an extremist group based in Somalia, claimed responsibility for the attack. You wrote:

I take the strongest exception to the CBC's milquetoast, anodyne description of the al-Shabbab (sic) terrorists as "militants". Any group that would spray bullets into a consort of women and children in a civic space, all whilst justifying their actions under the guise of the Islamic belief system, are nothing less than terrorists.”

You asked for a review of all relevant CBC policies and that from now on the “descriptor ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ (be) used in applicable news stories.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jennifer Harwood, Managing Editor of CBC News Network, replied to your concerns. She explained that it is a long standing practice to use the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” when they are attributed by others. She explained that the practice is “to describe the act or individual, as ‘bomber’, ‘militant’, ‘extremist’ or ‘gunman,’ for instance, and let the viewer, reader or listener make his own judgment about the nature of the event. The purpose of journalism is to reflect reality, to inform, and to give viewers and listeners enough information so that they can reach their own conclusions.”

She pointed out that the use of the word can be highly politicized and therefore it is preferable that there be a consistent practice to be as specific as possible in describing an event without labelling it. She pointed out that many other leading news organizations also avoid using the words “on their own as a form of description without attribution.” CBC has been following this practice for over 30 years.

REVIEW

You asked for a review of CBC policies on the use of the word terrorism. CBC has policies on covering war and acts of terror, but not on the use of the words terrorist or terrorism. There is a policy on “War Terror and Natural Disasters” which talks about a need for accurately reflecting the reality of events that are unfolding, balanced with regard for the sensibilities of the audience. The policy on Civil Disturbances also emphasizes a need for accuracy:

In covering these events, the information we provide is as accurate and as timely as possible under the circumstances. In such a fluid situation, there is a commitment on our part to be open about what we know and how we know it.”

The policy also emphasizes that “our journalistic independence and credibility is paramount.” And that relates to the challenge journalists have with the descriptors terrorist and terrorism. There is no one accepted definition for those words. Sometimes the desire to use the terms is based on a subjective ideological or political perspective. As Ms. Harwood pointed out, many reputable news organizations struggle with this dilemma. For instance, there was much discussion in journalistic circles around the Boston Marathon bombing. Was that terrorism, were they terrorists? There is no doubt that the deed sowed terror, but that is not exactly the same thing. As one of my predecessors noted while reviewing a similar complaint, journalists feel that it is relatively easy to start using the terms, but considerably harder to know when to stop. The BBC editorial guideline sums it up quite well:

“Unfortunately, there is no agreed or universal consensus on what constitutes a terrorist, or a terrorist attack. Dictionaries may offer definitions but the United Nations has again just failed to reach agreement. The obvious reason is that terrorism is regarded through a political prism.”

CBC offers its reporters and editors similar guidance through its language guide:

“Exercise extreme caution before using the words terrorist and terrorism. Avoid labelling any specific bombing or other assault as a “terrorist act” unless this term is attributed.

Terrorism generally implies attacks against unarmed civilians for political, religious or some other ideological reason. But it’s a highly controversial term that can leave journalists taking sides in a conflict.

By restricting ourselves to neutral language, we aren’t faced with the problem of calling one incident a “terrorist act” (e.g., the destruction of the World Trade Center) while classifying another as, say, a mere “bombing” (e.g., the destruction of a crowded shopping mall in the Middle East).”

The guide goes on to emphasize the need for as precise language as possible to convey the horror and the terror that acts of violence provoke. Indeed, there are those who argue that if you use it too much you actually obscure the meaning. There are others, of course, like you, who believe it is not used enough.

The journalistic purpose of reporting on events like the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi is to convey its full horror and its impact on the people involved. There is a duty to explain as much as is known about the perpetrators. That is how the journalism, based on CBC’s own policies, is to be judged.

I think CBC takes a journalistically and ethically sound position when it recognizes the need for caution when using these terms, which are contentious and carry religious and ideological freight in some instances. The emphasis on specific language and the duty to provide clear, accurate information so that the audience members can make up their own minds fulfills journalistic policy and is a sound journalistic approach.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman