ISIS ISIL IS: What to call the extremist group

The complainant, Alistair Anderson, asked that CBC News stop using the name ISIS to describe the extremist group because it was causing difficulties for his granddaughter and other people who bear that name. There’s lots of disagreement about what to call the group but there’s no journalistic reason to drop ISIS.

COMPLAINT

The initial complaint about this matter came from your daughter, Taisa Anderson. You wrote on her behalf to ask for a review. You and your daughter are very concerned about the use of the term ISIS to describe the Sunni extremist group. You want CBC to stop using this acronym because it is harmful to Ms. Anderson’s daughter (your granddaughter) whose name is Isis. You added that using ISIS was harming women, girls and businesses that had that name. Your daughter mentioned that she was considering changing her daughter’s name. You asked why, given that other news organizations use alternative descriptors and acronyms, CBC would opt to continue to cause distress and harm to people.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director for Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, said that CBC News managers and staff have been challenged by this issue, and have an ongoing discussion about what is the best term to use. He said that CBC News would be sticking with ISIS for now, but he would share Ms. Anderson’s thoughts and concerns with CBC news editors “as they continue to discuss this matter.”

He acknowledged that the label ISIS is “off-putting” for some people. In your case it is because it is the name of a child in your family, and for others it is because it denigrates the name of the ancient goddess Isis.

He explained that CBC News staff had considered some of the other designations for the group. He said the term “Islamic State” was rejected:

There are news organizations that have followed that path, but we have held back, in part because that stark title would suggest they are a sovereign state. That would neither be accurate not is it a form of legitimacy we intend to provide them.

He said the acronym ISIL was rejected because the audience is far more familiar with ISIS, and that clarity was the most important consideration:

...clarity for the audience has to be our number one priority. And that has led us to employ the term ISIS – at least for now.

Of late, there has been interest from a number of quarters in using the term “Daesh”, which is an acronym of sorts for the group’s name in Arabic. It’s prompted an internal conversation here. So far, we believe the virtue of using ISIS – clarity for the audience – trumps the virtue of using Daesh. But we are keeping an open mind, and may well decide to change in the future. It will depend largely on how commonly that name is used by political leaders, and in public dialogue. We need to feel comfortable that the audience will instantly understand who we're talking about.

REVIEW

Most news organizations have wrestled with the best and most accurate label for this extremist group operating out of Iraq. Public concerns range from yours, that it brings into disrepute people and businesses with the name Isis, to legitimizing it by describing it as an Islamic state. There are a significant number who use the designation ISIS. They argue that it is a reasonable representation of an English translation of the group’s original name in Arabic: Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. (The group has relabelled itself “Islamic State.”) The Toronto Star’s preferred style is “Islamic State militants” or “Islamic State group.” There is no prohibition on other terms like ISIS. Most major broadcasters use ISIS, but the debate seems ongoing for a variety of reasons.

Other news organizations, not wanting to associate the group holding shifting territory in Iraq with the idea of an actual political entity, do not use the word state. In a June, 2015 editorial in the British newspaper The Independent, Rehman Chishti argued they are neither a “state” nor “Islamic” and we shouldn’t call them ISIS, ISIL or IS. He goes on to argue that designations like “Islamic State” confer legitimacy where none exists. He argues for the name “Daesh,” an acronym for the Arabic name of the group. The problem is that this name has little meaning or recognition for most members of the audience.

Journalistic decision making often has competing goals and values to assess. CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices provide a framework to make some judgments. In this case some of the relevant sections would be those which deal with accuracy and an obligation to bring clarity to coverage. There is also specific policy on language:

CBC is a language model for its audiences. Good usage and accuracy are essential to high quality journalism. Our language should be simple, clear and concrete.

Journalistic style is accurate, concise and accessible. Our purpose is to make complex subjects understandable. When specialized or technical vocabulary needs to be used, it is explained and put in a context that makes it easy to understand.

The description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand….

The use of certain highly charged words can undermine credibility and merits special consideration. Language is constantly evolving. We will be attentive to shifts in the meaning of words. We consult language resources and editorial management as needed to grasp the impact of expressions that are open to multiple interpretations and capable of offending some audience members.

The goal of good journalism is clarity. The term ISIS is probably the best known and the most recognized. It is also the clearest translation of the group’s name. While minimizing harm is also part of ethical decision making, the need for accuracy and clarity are equally important. It is unfortunate the acronym echoes a name, but the use of ISIS does not violate CBC journalistic policy.

The term is quite widespread and I am not sure what significant difference it would make at this point to drop the term completely. However, as Mr. Nagler notes, the situation is fluid. And I have noted that there is a range of terms and titles used in the media. I encourage editors and news managers to keep discussing this issue and consider broadening the terms it uses. ISIS might be one of them, but there are ways of introducing other descriptors.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman