About two weeks ago, The New York Times’ public editor Clark Hoyt wrote an article responding to readers’ criticisms of the US newspaper’s decision not to use the word “terrorist” to describe the men who invaded Mumbai and massacred people last month.
“They were ‘militants,’ ‘gunmen,’ ‘attackers’ and ‘assailants,’ Hoyt wrote.
“Their actions, which left bodies strewn in the city’s largest train station, fivestar hotels, a Jewish centre, a café and a hospital—were described as ‘coordinated terrorist attacks.’ But the men themselves were not called terrorists. Readers could not understand it.”
In separating the act from the perpetrators, The New York Times followed the same policy as many leading news organisations, such as the BBC and Reuters, which have applied the rule for all terrorist attacks since 9/11. They describe the acts as “terrorism”, but do not call those who carry them out “terrorists”.
After 9/11, for instance, Reuters’ top editors said they were doing this in the interests of objective reporting: calling an act terrorist is merely descriptive, their argument ran, but calling someone a terrorist involves opinion. After all, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
To break this down further, the policy essentially maintains a distinction between means and ends: a disinterested journalist would be accurate in describing the means as violent but would be making a value judgement about the ends by labelling the perpetrators.
If you call someone a “terrorist”, his or her ends are, by definition, unjustified. If you describe him or her as a “freedom fighter”, you imply that his or her goal is just. So avoid labels altogether.
Such nuances are particularly important for large, international news organisations such as the BBC and Reuters which, regardless of where they are headquartered, try to take a God-like view of the world and steer clear of national loyalties. They aren’t always successful, but they try hard.
Indian newspapers, however, do not, by and large, even attempt to achieve this kind of objectivity. At HT, on November 26, we might have hesitated for may be a nano-second about what to describe the invaders. There was no question.
Terrorists they were. We even wrote about BBC’s and Reuters’ decisions to avoid that term, but that did not set off soul searching in our newsroom.
Should it have? I do think Indian newsrooms need to become more selfaware and introspective. But in this instance, I don’t think I am losing much sleep for not having discussed the matter threadbare or because HT went ahead and used the word terrorist to describe the men who wreaked havoc on the city. Harinder Baweja’s report from the headquarters of the Laskhar-e-Tayyeba, which HT carried on its front page, ought to have lifted doubts about the organisation’s ends.
Hoyt, for his part, appreciated his newspaper thinking through the policy, but felt it was more conservative than he himself would be.
“I do not think it is possible to write a set of hard and fast rules for the T-words,” he wrote. “…(But) my own broad guideline: If it looks as if it was intended to sow terror and it shocks the conscience, whether it is planes flying into the World Trade Center, gunmen shooting up Mumbai, I'd call it terrorism—by terrorists.”