Words matter. And they matter more than usual when the media report on conflict.
This week is a good example. Are we “marking” the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War? Or are we “commemorating” it? We’re certainly not “remembering” it, because there’s probably no-one still alive in Britain who has such a long memory. Not many people would want to suggest that we are “celebrating” it, though some would. The historian Professor Sir Hew Strachan has said that: ‘this is a war… that Britain felt it had to fight and that it won, so I don’t think commemoration should elbow out celebration’. It’s easy to slip into talking about “wasted lives” or a “pointless conflict,” when some people, certainly at the time, felt that the conflict was anything but pointless, and that the lives lost were a necessary price.
Words matter when we are speaking about contemporary conflicts too. Should we speak about the terrible situation in Gaza as a war? Would it be more accurate to call it an occupation? Perhaps we should describe it as a war on Palestine rather than a war in Palestine. The choice of a single letter makes a significant political statement. Likewise when we are reporting casualties. It’s so easy to slip into saying that 20 Palestinians died yesterday, whilst two Israeli soldiers were killed. The two phrases conceal very different meanings. The choice of verb attributes responsibility.
The lead headline on Radio 4’s news at 7am yesterday read as follows: “Israel says it is close to completing its mission to destroy tunnels used by Hamas militants to launch attacks.” At face value that’s precisely correct. That is indeed what Israel says – if we allow the idea that when we say “Israel” we mean the Israeli government. But what about the tunnels? The Israeli Government has invited us to call them “Terror Tunnels.” Since 9/11 the word “terror” has been used and abused to confer moral legitimacy on military reprisals. It is quite accurate for Radio 4 to say that the tunnels are used by Hamas militants to launch attacks. But is that the only thing the tunnels are used for? Almost certainly not. There’s a bigger story here.
Most terrorist groups don’t go to the trouble and risk of building tunnels to attack their enemies. Hamas have done so because Israel has blockaded the border of the Gaza strip by land and sea. Tunnels are about the only way to get goods in and out. They are certainly used to launch attacks now. But before the latest assault they were also used to re-equip Hamas with people and weapons, and to transport food, water, medicines and building supplies for starving Palestinian civilians. Some of the press have happily borrowed the phrase “terror tunnels”, not least because the words are short enough for a banner headline. But you might also see them as “relief tunnels” – examples of resourcefulness from a people being systematically starved. It is likely that Israel wants to destroy the tunnel network, not only because it is used to launch attacks, but also because it circumvents a specific and openly stated strategy to exercise control over the calorific intake of the population.
So the headline could have read “Israel says it is close to completing its mission to destroy tunnels used to carry food aid to the people of Gaza.” Of course that would have been no closer to telling the full story – but no less accurate either.
We can’t assume that every journalist wants to present a balanced picture of the world. Some do, but many don’t. Nor should we necessarily be seeking balance in coverage. Fairness and accuracy are better goals for a journalist. Sometimes fairness means making it clear that the situation is not balanced.
This isn’t only about war reporting either. Another story in the same bulletin reported on Pattharamon Chanbuathe, the Thai surrogate mother whose Australian clients had apparently declined to receive a baby born with Down Syndrome, (an allegation they deny.) The last sentence of the headline said that “she refused to have an abortion on religious grounds.” The subtle implication is that abortion should have been her default response to discovering that her baby had Down’s, but that she made a dissenting decision not to. In fact she “refused”, which suggests that someone had asked her to have an abortion. The way the headline is phrased seems to load some of the blame for the situation on the mother. But by most standards, delivering a healthy baby with Down’s Syndrome is the norm, not an aberration.
Why does this matter? Because journalism has a magnifying effect. It creates a narrative that becomes currency. It has a hypnotic effect on the public imagination. The language of journalism forms the framework within which most of us discuss and reflect on events. That’s why politicians seek to influence the language of journalists, and are in turn influenced by them. Some journalists do this deliberately, because their work reflects their own political or religious stance, or that of their publication or proprietor. Others do it accidentally, through laziness or thoughtlessness. Journalism is a moral task, and demands high standards. The choice of words in news reporting is seldom without consequence. In the words of the WW2 cartoon series by Fougasse, Careless Talk Costs Lives.