Terrorist or Militant? Washington Post Update

Word-choice is important. It helps illustrate the details and realities of a writer’s subject — and conveys biases, subtle or blatant. In journalism, word-choice is critical, the equivalent of a gem-cutter’s chisel. If the tool isn’t sharp and the cutter precise, the gem that emerges from the rough stone will be flawed.
That’s one reason recognizing and filtering one’s own biases is a tenet of professional news coverage. That said, The Washington Post, like other leading American journalism outlets, has a consistent problem with a specific word-choice challenge: The further away from the United States or American citizens an act of terrorism is, the more likely The Post is to call the perpetrators “militants”; the closer terrorist activity is to U.S. soil or Americans, the more likely The Post is to use the word terrorist. CAMERA has pointed this out repeatedly, including in the Backgrounder “Who Made Terrorism and Militant Synonymous?” (July 20, 2012).  

Terrorism, according to U.S. law, amounts to the illegal threat or use of force against noncombatants to influence a larger audience in pursuit of an ideological, theological, economic or other agenda. But when reporting on what obviously are terrorist attacks by members of Hamas, Hezbollah or other terrorists groups (often so designated by the U.S. government), The Post habitually refers to them as the work of “militants” and “militant groups.”

 The Post article headlined “Syria’s allies condemn Israeli strike” (Feb. 1, 2013, highlighted the newspaper’s language problem regarding Hamas and Hezbollah: It calls both “militant groups.” This misrepresents two of the Middle East’s leading terrorist organizations, and, in the case of Hezbollah, one of the world’s chief terrorist groups. The government of the United States officially deems both Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organizations, forbidding official contacts and restricting interactions by private citizens. The Post’s “militant” label for these organizations may imply, whether intentionally or inadvertently, that they are fighting the Israeli military, neglecting that both purposefully and primarily target Israeli civilians.
In “France may begin troop pullout from Mali in March” (Feb. 6, 2013), The Post accurately describes AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) using terms like extremist, terrorist, and the weak but not incorrect “Islamist.” AQIM is affiliated with Al-Qaeda; hence, it at least indirectly affects the United States.
The Post’s “Terrorist inflicts pain upon families living worlds apart” (Jan. 28, 2013)  demonstrates that The Post will use the term terrorist when referring to attacks that affect the United States, even when those attacks affect U.S. military personnel and might, depending on the attackers’ methods and uniforms, more precisely be described as guerrilla warfare. The paper’s word-choice includes “extremist” and “chronic terrorist figure” to label members of the Taliban and their attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The strongest and most passionate language The Washington Post uses to refer to terrorist activity appears when it affects the domestic United States. For example, in “Use of stings is subject of debate” (Nov. 26, 2012), the paper’s reporters and editors use terms like “anti-terrorism tool,” “terrorist attacks,” “a known terrorist in Afghanistan,” “war on terrorism,” “terrorist groups,” “would-be terrorist’s zeal to kill.” The article describes the controversy over using entrapment to counter potential terrorists. This example too indicates that the closer to Americans and American soil a potential terrorist or terrorist act is, the more likely The Post is to use accurately terror, terrorist and terrorism and the less likely the vague term “militant” is to appear.
By substituting the virtually meaningless word “militant” for the precise “terrorist,” The Post sanitizes terrorist organizations. A militant may be a combatant in war, or an aggressive but non-violent “activist” for a cause — environmental, trade union or civil rights, for example. A terrorist, on the other hand, uses violence to coerce non-combatants and their governments. There is a difference, it’s fundamental, and The Post, as part of its goal of uniform standards and accuracy, should recognize it consistently. But what the paper has now, and has had for years, especially regarding terrorist attacks by Arab-Islamic groups against Israel, is a misleading double standard. — by Andrew Wallin, CAMERA Washington Research Intern

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