CAMERA Seeks Clarification from Los Angeles Times on ‘Terror’ Terminology

CAMERA sent the following letter to the Los Angeles Times’ Readers’ Representative on Friday, March 19, 2004. The paper has yet to respond.

March 19, 2004

Numerous members have contacted us with concerns regarding the Los Angeles Times’ use of the terms “terrorist” or “terrorism” in connection to the recent attacks in Madrid, Baghdad and Ashdod. Indeed, a review of the paper’s news coverage reveals disturbing inconsistencies.

The articles dealing with Iraq and Spain repeatedly refer to the attackers, or suspected attackers, as “terrorist/s,” while coverage of Palestinian perpetrators of attacks on civilians did not use the word “terrorist.”

* A March 18 article on the Iraqi bombing states: “President Bush has sought to link the war in Iraq to the larger war on terrorism, although critics disagree and argue that Al Qaeda terrorist network and similar groups were never active in the parts of Iraq that were under Baghdad’s control until after the U.S.-led invasion. Now officials are convinced that some foreign terrorists have crossed the country’s porous borders and established links with Hussein loyalists and home-grown Islamic extremists to use terrorist tactics against the U.S. and its allies.”

* For six days in a row, news articles referred to “terrorist/s” in connection to the Madrid bombings: On March 12: “A number of alleged supporters of Al Qaeda-style terrorist groups have been arrested in Spain.”

* On March 13: “The witness did not see the men well enough to get a sense of their ethnicity, a potentially vital question in a case in which leaders point to Basque or Islamic terrorists. . . . .As the Al Qaeda terrorist network became another suspect, the government deployed investigative teams that specialize in Islamic terrorism.”

* On March 14: “The center-left opposition alleges that the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has downplayed the evidence pointing to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.”

* On March 15: “Numerous voters said they believed Spain’s support for the Bush administration had put it in the cross hairs of Islamic terrorists.”

* On March 16: “Interior Minister Angel Acebes and other officials cautioned Monday that the possible involvement of Basque terrorists has not been ruled out. . . . Despite a police search of Zougam’s home in 2001 that turned up evidence of ties to Islamic terror networks. . .”

* On March 17: “Last week’s attacks heightened fears that terrorists could blend into the Spain-Morocco flow to carry out a mission on European soil. . . . Police were also analyzing a video in which a self-styled military chief of the Al Qaeda terrorist network in Europe claimed responsibility for the bombings.”

In contrast, March 15 coverage of the attacks on Israeli civilians avoided the term “terrorist”: “Two Palestinian militant organizations, Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, claimed joint responsibility for the attack, in keeping with a recent pattern. The bombers were identified as two teenagers. . . ”

Why does the Los Angeles Times news department label Al Qaeda and Basque “terrorist” groups, while Hamas and Al Aqsa are “miliant”? All of these groups have targeted innocent civilians to pursue their political agendas, so why isn’t there a consistent standard?

In the past, you have written to Los Angeles Times readers that “when reporters cover a specific attack, editors prefer that they describe precisely what happened. As you know, the suicide bombings and other attacks have been reported in gory detail, so the enormity of the event is made clear to the reader in any case.” However, this preference does not appear to apply uniformly. Thus, the attack on citizens in Madrid are labeled “terrorist,” while the attack on civilians in Ashdod was not.

* The LA Times repeatedly referred to the March 11 attack in Madrid as “terrorist.” The March 12 article read: “In the most devastating terrorist attack in Spanish history, 10 bombs detonating minutes apart ripped through crowded commuter trains at three Madrid stations early Thursday, killing nearly 200 people, injuring 1,400.” It ought to be noted that the article included plenty of “gory detail, so the enormity of the event is made clear to the reader in any case.” Yet, the term “terrorist” nonetheless appears.

Other graphic details include: “But the scale of carnage went far beyond anything the separatists had ever carried out. . . . A hellish scene of destruction and anguish repeated itself at the three stations. . . . Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, rescue workers pulled bodies and pieces of bodies from the shells of passneger cars that had been packed with workaday Spaniards, students and immigrants. At Atocha, the dead and dying lay alongside the tracks or in a makeshift triage center, covered by blankets and attended by frantic medics. Burned and bloody survivors staggered from the wreckage. ‘There was blood everywhere,’ said Angel Grandes. . . ‘There was a 20-year-old boy, who came out all torn up. He came near me, I grabbed his arm and he fell. He died right there, at my feet.’ Sobbing as he recounted the scene, Grandes repeated over and over: ‘So much blood, so much blood. And so many blankets, all covering the bodies. It was Dantaesque.’ ‘The train was cut open like a can of tuna,’ Enrique Sanchez, one of a legion of overwhelmed ambulance drivers, told reporters. ‘One carriage [was] totally blown apart. People were scattered all over the platforms. I saw legs and arms. I won’t forget this ever.’ Rather than climb steadily, the death toll seemed to leap. By nightfall, authorities had counted 192 dead, and many of the injured were in critical condition. Several children and pregnant women were among those killed, Spanish television reported. Identification was difficult because of the condition of the bodies, a coroner’s official said.”

* On March 13: “Spaniards filed into streets and plazas Friday to show defiance in the face of Spain’s worst terrorist attack. . . ” Again, gory details making clear the enormity of the event: “As a host of crestfallen families staggered to an ad hoc morgue on city fairgrounds to identify their relatives’ shattered boties, the death toll climbed Friday to 199 when a 7-month-old Polish girl died. A reporter announcing the baby’s death on state television broke down in tears.”

* On March 15: “The Popular Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar conceded defeat, another victim, perhaps, of Spain’s deadliest terrorist attack. . . .” Here, too, four days after the attack the article includes graphic detail which supposedly would abrogate the need to use the word “terrorist”: “With bandages on his face and a neck brace, bombing victim Cayetano Abad arrived at his polling station by ambulance and wheelchair.”

In contrast, the LA Times does not identify the Palestinian attack on Ashdod, which targeted innocent civilians as did the attacks in Madrid, as terrorist. Therefore, it does seem that Los Angeles Times reporters refer to specific attacks as “terrorist,” but that they specifically “prefer” not to when the victims involved are  Israeli. Nor apparently does the journalists’ use of gory details have any baring on this preference.

If I have misjudged the paper’s policy or practice, I would appreciate an explanation. In any event, we urge that the editors insure that consistent standards for the use of “terrorist” are applied in future coverage of world events. Thank you for your consideration.


Tamar Sternthal
Senior Research Analyst

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