The Washington Times world news briefs featured a wire service item headlined “Yemen: Soldier, 2 terrorists killed in attacks” (July 19). The brief exemplified the enduring and unacceptable inconsistency of news media in distinguishing “militants” from “terrorists” when reporting acts of aggression.
The Times brief reads, “Two al-Qaeda terrorists and an army officer were killed in separate attacks” in southern Yemen where “armed tribesman ambushed a group of al-Qaeda militants… in an area seized by the army and tribesman last month in heavy fighting with the terrorists”.
The newspaper and unidentified wire service failed to differentiate “militant” from “terrorist.” This represents a common news media default position.
“Five Israeli victims of Bulgaria bomb attack are buried; Many of the injured still hospitalized; suspect’s identity not confirmed” read the headline over The Washington Post’s coverage (July 21). Israeli and U.S. officials presumed the bombing to have been committed by Hezbollah. The Associated Press dispatch describes Hezbollah as “the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group [emphasis added] ….” Nowhere does the 19-paragraph article (longer online) remind readers that Hezbollah has been designated by the U.S. and other governments as a terrorist organization.
In its page one (July 20) coverage, “Escalation feared in Israel-Iran struggle; Blast in Bulgaria could signal lethal new phase in ‘shadow war’”, The Post did report that “as far back as January, the Israeli government has sounded warnings about a growing terrorist threat in Bulgaria.” It noted that one of its sources is “writing a book on Hezbollah-sponsored terrorism ….” But it described the Shi’ite Muslim “Party of God” directly only as “the Lebanon-based militia movement closely aligned with the Islamic republic [of Iran].”
An inside article, “Israel says it will retaliate against Iran for Bulgaria bombing; Analysts see likelihood of a covert response, not a military strike” directly quotes Israeli officials speaking of “terror” and “terrorist.” But in its own words The Post repeats the boilerplate “Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia that receives Iranian support.” Yet a reference to al Qaeda says “the terror organization asserted responsibility for a deadly dual assault on an Israeli jet and Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa, Kenya in 2002.” A euphemism for Hezbollah, truth-in-labeling for al Qaeda?
In the same edition, The Post headlined an AP brief “Domestic fight ruined terror plot in Britain.” In its own words the wire service refers to “terrorist activities” and notes that the wife of a man who planned to bomb Jewish sites in Manchester “was convicted on three terrorism-related counts.”
If there is any rhyme or reason to the militant for terrorist substitution, it seems to happen most often when the attackers are jihadists and their targets are Israeli noncombatants. Interchangeability suggests—inaccurately—that the two words carry equal weight and can be used as synonyms. This reflects neither legal nor journalistic reality.
The U.S. Department of Defense defines terrorists as individuals who employ a “calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological”. And if news is a current event of some significance and interest, then for reporters someone who threatens or uses illegal force against noncombatants is a terrorist. Farmers farm, lawyers practice law, and terrorists commit terrorism.
“Militant,” on the other hand, is undefined by American law and its consensus usage journalistically—militant unionist, militant environmentalists, militant feminist—is as an adjective. It suggests vehemence and persistence but not illegal violence. Militant [Israeli] settler, however, has been associated with violent actors.
Semantically, substituting militant for terrorist diminishes the nature of the latter’s crimes and the suffering of the victims. It also, in the case Hezbollah, Hamas and other anti-Israel movements designated by the U.S. and other governments as foreign terrorist organizations, misleadingly sanitizes them.
Journalism rests on reporting accurately and in context who, what, when, where, why and how. Using terrorist and militant as synonyms does not qualify.