News Media Confusion of Execute and Murder is Deadly to Accuracy

News media conflation of murder with execution has become deadly—to journalistic standards of accuracy. Mark Twain famously said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is that between lightning and a lightning bug. In the countless cases of terrorists, not militants, who commit murder, not carry out executions, it’s that stark and more serious.

The bloody eruption of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, more recently self-proclaimed as the Islamic State) into the headlines over the past year epitomizes a disturbing trend in news coverage and commentary years in the making. News outlets use the word “execution” to describe what obviously are murders. In the process they erase in language, thought, law and morality a conceptual pillar of civilization.

Among innumerable examples:

The Times of Israel reported that “[a] jihadist group operating in the Sinai Peninsula has taken responsibility for executing five more people for collaborating with Israel, after it announced Thursday that it had beheaded four people on the same charges” (“Sinai jihadists claim 5 more beheadings”, Sept. 2, 2014).
The Chicago Tribune stated that “Hamas-led gunmen in Gaza executed 18 Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel on Friday, a day after Israeli forces killed three Hamas commanders, the highest-ranking militants to die in the six-week war” (“Gunmen execute 18 alleged collaborators in Gaza; Israel launches air strikes”, Aug. 22, 2014).

The Washington Post informed readers that “a group calling itself the Palestinian Resistance announced on Hamas-affiliated Web sites that 11 alleged collaborators — nine men and two women — were executed by firing squad Friday morning in the courtyard of an abandoned police headquarters” (“Gaza militants execute 18 alleged collaborators”, Aug. 22, 2014).

They ought to know better

In a Post commentary, two men who should know better, Robert H. Scales (Maj. Gen., U.S. Army, Ret. and former commandant of the Army War College), and Douglas Ollivant (fellow at the New American Foundations’ Future of War project), wrote “they [Islamist fighters] employ mortars and rockets in deadly barrages. To be sure, parts of the old terrorist playbook remain: They butcher and execute prisoners to make unambiguously clear the terrible consequences of resistance. They continue to display an eager willingness for death and the media savvy of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ (“Today’s Islamist fighters aren’t like the disorganized enemy of the old”, Aug. 3, 2014). 

The Los Angeles Times, in a news report, said U.S President Barack Obama “has reconsidered his position as Islamic State forces have grown stronger and issued threats against Americans, most recently in a video this week showing the killing of American journalist James Foley at the hands of a masked executioner who spoke with a British accent” (“U.S. considers attacking Islamic State militants in Syria”, Aug. 22, 2014).
A day earlier, The Times reported on an ISIS message “to the American government ‘and their sheep-like citizens,’ one filled with rage about U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State positions in northern Iraq and threatening to execute the journalist in retaliation” (“Slaying of James Foley revives debate on paying ransom to terrorists,” Aug. 21, 2014).

News services long have prided themselves on being keepers of journalistic standards. But Reuters, the world’s biggest wire service, told clients that “[t]he United Nations on Monday condemned ‘appalling, widespread’ crimes by Islamic State forces in Iraq, including mass executions of prisoners that could amount to war crimes (“U.N. accuses Islamic State of mass killing”, Aug. 25, 2014).

A USA Today cutline said “[j]ournalist James Foley was shown being executed [all emphases added] in a video last week” (“Foley killer an ex-London rapper, British officials say”, Aug. 26, 2014). 

Rem Rieder, USA Today’s media columnist and former editor of American Journalism Review certainly ought to know better. Yet the lead to his column “Why do reporters risk their lives? They often say, ‘If we don’t do it, who will?’” (USA Today, Sept. 4, 2014, read “It’s hideousness of almost unimaginable dimensions. Twice in two weeks, journalists guilty of nothing more than doing their jobs have been executed, beheaded on video by terrorists.”

The distinction is fundamental

But “execute” means, as any authoritative dictionary notes, “to put to death especially in compliance with a legal sentence”.

State and federal laws across the United States make clear that murder is one thing, executions another, and other killings—manslaughter, self-defense, accidental—quite something else.

A person found guilty beyond reasonable doubt of murder and sentenced to death by a legitimate government, after a trial conducted according to due process and who has exhausted a substantive appeals process, is the polar opposite of the victim of an individual criminal, criminal organization, terrorist movement or police state. The founding ethical document of Western civilization, the Hebrew Bible, makes the distinction clear. Killing in self-defense is permissible; murder, on the other hand, is prohibited by the Sixth Commandment.

Regardless of its name, the Islamic State is not a not a legitimate nation state but a terrorist organization. It has no more authority to execute individuals than do drug cartels, which also are frequently and erroneously reported to have “executed” victims.

Some of the same news outlets that wrongly have described ISIS’ killings (and previously those of other terrorist organizations and criminal syndicates) as murders have used the word execution precisely in recent coverage. Among them:

USA Today noted that “[d]eath penalty opponents and lawyers for condemned prisoners said the botched execution of a convicted in killer in Oklahoma could have a far-reaching impact on death penalty states, potentially putting the brakes at least temporarily on further use of lethal injections” (“Botched execution could slam brakes on death penalty,” April 30, 2014).

The Guardian (U.K.) reported that “[a] long-awaited state investigation into a botched Oklahoma execution describes a scene marred by repeated failures and delays as prison staff struggled to implement an effective method of killing the inmate, Clayton Lockett (“Oklahoma state report on botched lethal injection cites medical failures”, Sept. 4, 2014).
Does frequent editorial opposition to the death penalty contribute, consciously or not, to accurate use of the term in this context? In any case, The Washington Times, quoting U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) noted the legislator’s correct assertion that “…what they’ve [the Islamic State] done, which is horrific, particularly the murder of Mr. Foley…” (“Some fear Islamic State U.S. threat”, The Washington Times, Aug. 25, 2014).

The Huffington Post, citing White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, referring to the same crime, reported, “[W]e have seen a video that purports to be the murder of U.S. citizen James Foley by ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant].” (“James Foley, Missing American Photojournalist, Beheaded By ISIS In Syria”, Aug. 19, 2014).

USA Today avoided misuse of “execute” to describe the slaying of Steven Sotloff by the terror organization: “The Islamic State released a video Tuesday apparently depicting the beheading of another American journalist, the second such video in the terrorist group’s relentless and grisly campaign to drive the United States out of the Mideast region” (“2nd journalist beheaded by terrorists”, Sept. 3, 2014).

James Foley, Steven Sotloff, captured Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese soldiers and Iraqi and Syrian civilians beheaded or shot by ISIS; dissidents and rival Fatah members killed by Hamas as “collaborators” with Israel; Nigerian Christians slaughtered by Boko Haram and thousands of other similar victims of Islamic extremists were not executed. They were murdered. Erroneous reporting of their deaths is more than “just mistaken word choice.” It’s a confusing, potentially demoralizing conflation of opposites

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