The Media’s “Terrorism” Bias

January 6, 2012

This is always a fun topic as it involves language, politics and double standards. Yum.

As many of us learned in the 1980s, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Thank you, Ronald Reagan, and your Newspeak treatment of the conflict in Nicaragua. The term terrorist, of course, is politically neutral on its face. As long as terrorizing people is the means by which a particular ideological goal is pursued, then we’re dealing with terrorists. Could be an Islamic fundamentalist, a pissed off tree hugger, a rabid Luddite, or a fervent supporter of Ayn Rand hopped up on smack.

Funny thing, though. Through the use of the word terrorist, we make value judgments on the underlying ideological goal all the time. This has been particularly true since 9/11, now that the word terrorist has so much emotional cache. To label a person or organization as a terrorist is a big deal these days, in some ways comparable to calling someone a racist (in the U.S. at least) or a Nazi. For the most part, casual use of terrorist or Nazi is a symbolic rhetorical tool, distinguishable from the charge of racism, which is usually meant as a straightforward accusation.

But wait, it gets even better. In addition to the use of the terms terrorism and terrorist, there is also the use of “terrorist” (i.e. the term in single or double quotation marks). Here’s a useful explanation of the punctuation usage:

Double quotation marks can also be used sometimes to indicate that a word is special in some way. I bet you’ve all seen quotation marks used as something called scare quotes, which are quotation marks put around a word to show that the writer doesn’t buy into the meaning.

[ . . . ]

More often though, scare quotes (which are also sometimes called sneer quotes) are used to impart a sense of irony or disdain. They’re especially common in nasty political commentary[.]

By the way, single quotes, which I often use improperly (actually, I use both improperly), don’t really belong in this discussion. For some reason, though, certain news agencies use them in headlines in place of double quotation marks. Go figure.

You probably guessed where this is all going. Yes, the word terrorist is often used with sneer quotes to suggest that although someone has conferred terrorist status upon a person or group, that charge should be questioned. What’s interesting here, of course, is when sneer quotes are used and when they aren’t.

It goes without saying that Muslim fundamentalists, particularly those from Middle Eastern nations, are labeled as terrorists on a regular basis by news agencies. Indeed, these guys definitely meet the definition of terrorist. No complaints from me, assuming of course that all of these people are actually members of these fundamentalist groups (that’s another topic entirely, I suppose).

But what about these examples from recent incidents in Syria?

UPI: ‘Terrorists’ attack Syrian gas pipeline

The Telegraph: Syria: state says ‘terrorists’ blew up gas pipeline

Reuters: “Terrorist” explosion targets Damascus district-TV

What’s going on here? One reason for the sneer quotes is that no one really knows who the perpetrators are, since no one claimed responsibility for the explosions. The Assad government labeled them terrorists, but since that cannot be collaborated, uncertainty remains.

But that isn’t really the whole truth. Consider the Telegraph headline. If they had just gone with “Syria: state says terrorists blew up gas pipeline,” that would have adequately explained that it was the government using the label terrorist and not the Telegraph. No, they went with the sneer quotes because Assad is a reviled leader under siege and no one believes what his government says.

Keep in mind, Reuters could have gone with “Explosion targets Damascus district.” Perfectly adequate headline. The extra word was thrown in for a reason, to sensationalize the article and catch the reader’s attention with a hot button word. The sneer quotes were a form of editorialization. Whether doing so was appropriate given that this was a news article is something I’ll leave to the professionals.

And now we come to a couple of headlines about China:

Associated Press: Police shoot 7 ‘terrorists’ in China’s Muslim west

The Telegraph: Seven ‘terrorists’ shot dead in China

The underlying facts, which are in dispute, are not important. There has been a long-standing struggle in Xinjiang between an ethnic minority and the government/Han majority. If we go with the neutral definition of terrorism and identify ethnic minority groups that use violence to further ideological goals, then calling them terrorists is defensible.

But no one is using the term in a neutral fashion, of course. The government here, whose goal is to stabilize the region, understands the negative connotation of terrorist in this post-9/11 age. Indeed, it didn’t take long after 9/11 for China, through rhetorical use of terrorist, to align its interests in the West with that of the U.S., which at the time was all too happy to support any action that purported to thwart the goals of Muslim groups.

However, these days many in the U.S. and Europe are quite sympathetic to these groups in Western China. If the government here refers to them as terrorists, then I suspect that many Western media folks think of them as freedom fighters.

The use of the sneer quotes, therefore, is again an editorial comment, in effect arguing that the government’s label is suspect. If that seems perfectly justifiable to you, ask yourself whether your support is predicated on your stance on the situation in Xinjiang.

One final point that is worth mentioning. In most of these articles, the sneer quotes are limited to the headlines. The reporting is, by and large, excellent. Unfortunately, an editor with nothing else to do made a decision at some point to inject his/her opinion into an otherwise straightforward news piece. While there is a time and a place for that sort of thing, I think it should be a very rare occurrence.

15 thoughts on “The Media’s “Terrorism” Bias

      1. Maitreya

        Yes, editors too. I’m talking about this general tendency. There are lots of isolated incidents like these, and of course, one cannot discount the possibility that if one media outlet does it, others pick it up.

  1. slim

    A term in quotes in a headline must also be in quote form as reported speech in the article. If it is not then it is clearly editorializing. But often, and in the cases above, “terrorism” is also in the quotes on which the article is based. Ditto other emotive, value-laden words like “dictator” — most news agencies allow that word to be used only in reported speech. (This was suspended or ignored by many outlets in their treatment of Kim Jong-il.)

    1. Stan Post author

      You know, I actually thought about the reported speech issue long and hard when I was writing the post. Ultimately, though, I don’t buy it as an explanation. Too many alternatives and too many instances where it isn’t used. If that makes sense.

  2. S.K. Cheung

    I would treat the use of quotation marks in headline writing much like air quotes in visual/verbal communication: it’s the equivalent of “so-called”. Hence, “terrorists” = “so called” terrorists. I agree, it adds editorial content to what could otherwise be a factual news piece. Then again, that’s what copy writers and editors do. If the title catches your attention, the editor/copy writer has done their job. That doesn’t replace actually reading the contents of the article and drawing your own conclusions, of course…although it does do for some people.

    Headlines have bad grammar galore anyway. Take the “terrorist explosion targets Damascus TV”, for instance. Was there a suicide bomber who physically exploded into a bloody mess? Has there been a recruiting/sign-up frenzy among terrorists? The only way to find out, actually, is to read the darn article.

    1. Stan Post author

      Wow, even worse than I thought. What’s so difficult about implementing a rule like that? Editors don’t read editorial guidelines?

  3. buddy up

    Hmmm…How many times have tree huggers actually terrorized anybody?

    And Ayn Rand fanatics on smack? That’s a colorful image to be sure. But have you met any?

    How about soccer moms on speed?

    Kindergarten cooks on K?

    1. Stan Post author

      If I had to guess, I’d say that most Ayn Rand fanatics are on something. Not sure if it’s smack or something else. I’m no expert.

  4. LOLZ

    As a compromise, the “journalists” (ha) should just use the word “alleged” in front of “terrorist”. I think a headline like “Xinjiang Police shoots 7 alleged terrorists” sounds neutral.