Al Jazeera English Isn't the Only News Organization Avoiding 'Terrorists'

By Adams, Becket | Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The, January 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Al Jazeera English Isn't the Only News Organization Avoiding 'Terrorists'


Adams, Becket, Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The


Al Jazeera English isn't the only news group to avoid words like "terrorist" and "militants" when it reports on terrorist events -- the Qatar-based news agency is joined by the likes of Reuters, the BBC and the Associated Press.

But it's not about political correctness, officials in these newsrooms argue, it's about maintaining objectivity and accuracy.

"There is no BBC ban on the word 'terrorist', though we prefer a more precise description if possible. As our Editorial Guidelines make clear, careful use of the word 'terrorist' is essential for the BBC to maintain its standards of accuracy and impartiality," a network spokesperson told the Washington Examiner Friday.

It appears these news groups are quite serious about avoiding terms they say could muddle their reporting.

"We don't use the labels 'Islamist,' for example, or 'extremist.' We usually let the group's actions speak for themselves. We don't give that group a particular label," Al Jazeera English North Africa correspondent Nazanine Moshiri said in a video produced by the news group.

Following the Jan. 27 massacre of 10 journalists at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Al Jazeera English executive Carlos van Meek in an internal memo obtained by National Review Online instructed his reporters to avoid such terms as "terrorist," "militant," "Islamist" and "jihad."

"We manage our words carefully around here," he wrote, directing the organization's reporters to avoid the aforementioned list of words that "have a tendency of tripping us up."

The two attackers walked into the Charlie Hebdo newsroom and methodically mowed down the publication's editor, several of its cartoonists and half a dozen writers. They did because of cartoons published by the magazine that mocked Islam and Muhammed.

This is not the first time that the Qatar-based news group's word choices have come under scrutiny, as editors and correspondents have in the past remarked on this very issue.

"We found ourselves referring to Boko Haram and the Muslim Brotherhood using the same catch-all phrase, 'Islamist,' and we found that wasn't appropriate. And we felt that because of our expertise in this part of the world, we should be making the distinction around that to our audiences," news editor Simon Torkington said in November 2014.

"To someone, 'Islamist' might be a pejorative word or a word that you wouldn't apply to someone, although to other people, it's completely innocuous. We tend to avoid them for those reasons," said executive producer Nick Toksvig.

An Al Jazeera spokesperson defended van Meek's list of off- limits words, telling the Examiner this week the Arabic news operation is "not the only media outlet at the center of discussions on language." And to the extent that other newsrooms avoid key terms when reporting on terrorist attacks, the Al Jazeera spokesperson is correct.

Reuters, for example, explains in its style guide why its editors and reporters are to avoid words like "terror," "terrorism," "terror attack" and "terror cell:"

We may refer without attribution to terrorism and counterterrorism in general, but do not refer to specific events as terrorism. Nor do we use the word "terrorist" without attribution to qualify specific individuals, groups or events. "Terrorism" and "terrorist" must be retained when quoting someone in direct speech. When quoting someone in indirect speech, care must be taken with sentence structure to ensure it is entirely clear that they are the source's words and not a label. "Terrorism" and "terrorist" should not be used as single words in quotation marks (e.g., "terrorist") or preceded by so-called (e.g., a so-called terrorist attack), since that can be taken to imply a value judgement. Use a fuller quote if necessary.

"Terror," as in "terror attack" or "terror cell," should be avoided, except in direct quotes. Report the subjects of news stories objectively, their actions, identity and background. …

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