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Al Jazeera memo illustrates the importance of word choice

I’ve spent a lot of time and space over the last decade thinking and writing about political language, propaganda, censorship, and banned and taboo words. Every time the language wars begin heating up (illegal alien vs. undocumented worker), I find myself reverting to a set of first principles:

  1. What is the literal meaning of the questionable word or phrase?
  2. Does that word or phrase have any connotations, that is, associations that are positive or negative?
  3. How does the word correspond to what is actually happening on the ground?
  4. What group (sometimes called a “discourse community”) favors one locution over another, and why?
  5. Is the word or phrase “loaded”?  How far does it steer us from neutral?
  6. Does the word or phrase help me see, or does it prevent me from seeing?

This list of questions is inspired by an internal document leaked from Al Jazeera English and published by the conservative magazine National Review Online, NRO.com. The memo was written by news executive Carlos Van Meek and attends to the usages of words such as extremist, terrorist, Islamist, and jihad.

Here is the full text of the email by Van Meek as published on newsbusters.org, a site whose stated mission is to expose liberal bias in the media:

From: Carlos Van Meek
Sent: Tuesday, January 27, 2015 10:06 AM
To: AJE-Newsdesk; AJE-Output; AJE-DC-Newsroom
Subject: Terrorists, Militants, Fighters and then some…

All: We manage our words carefully around here. So I’d like to bring to your attention some key words that have a tendency of tripping us up. This is straight out of our Style Guide. All media outlets have one of those. So do we. If you’d like to amend, change, tweak.. pls write to Dan Hawaleshka direct who is compiling the updates to the Style Guide and they will be considered based on merit. No mass replies to this email, pls.

EXTREMIST – Do not use. Avoid characterizing people. Often their actions do the work for the viewer. Could write ‘violent group’ if we’re reporting on Boko Haram agreeing to negotiate with the government. In other words, reporting on a violent group that’s in the news for a non-violent reason.

TERRORISM/TERRORISTS – One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. We will not use these terms unless attributed to a source/person.

ISLAMIST – Do not use. We will continue to describe groups and individuals, by talking about their previous actions and current aims to give viewers the context they require, rather than use a simplistic label.

NOTE: Naturally many of our guests will use the word Islamist in the course of their answers. It is absolutely fine to include these answers in our output. There is no blanket ban on the word.
JIHAD – Do not use the Arabic term. Strictly speaking, jihad means an inner spiritual struggle, not a holy war. It is not by tradition a negative term. It also means the struggle to defend Islam against things challenging it. Again, an Arabic term that we do not use.
FIGHTERS – We do not use words such as militants, radicals, insurgents. We will stick with fighters. However, these terms are allowed when quoting other people using them.

MILITANT – We can use this term to describe individuals who favour confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause. For example, we can use the term to describe Norwegian mass-killer Andres Behring Breivik or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. But please note: we will not use it to describe a group of people, as in ‘militants’ or ‘militant groups’ etc.

So how should we interpret this advice from Al Jazeera’s Style Guide?  It will depend, in part, upon which language club you belong to. If you identify with Rush Limbaugh and use terms like Islamo-Fascist, then you are likely to see attempts to limit use of “jihad” as a form of Arabic political correctness, even propaganda.

What if you consider yourself a politically moderate Muslim Arab-American? Perhaps from your perspective you see the language policies of Al-Jazeera as a necessary step to creating, dare I say it, a more fair and balanced approach to reporting. It was S.I. Hayakawa in his famous book Language in Thought and Action who stipulates that any true report depends upon the avoidance of “loaded words.”  All the words highlighted in the memo – with the possible exception of “fighters” – are loaded. Their use over time has led to an inevitable set of associations. Use words like Islam, jihad, terrorist in a cluster, and I am, involuntarily, imagining the rubble of 9/11.

Here is a key obstacle to writing responsibly in our political culture: We seem to be losing neutrality as a value. What if I reject both “illegal alien” AND “undocumented worker”?  What if I see the first as dysphemism and the second as euphemism?  What if I offer an alternative, such as “illegal immigrant”? I will be attacked from the right as politically correct, and from the left as insensitive for categorizing a person as illegal.

Consider this range of language:

Al Jazeera also put out this video to explain their rationale for this style.

TERRORIST————————–FIGHTER————————HERO.

As the style book argues: One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But another set of questions must follow for the journalist: Should these two persons be treated as if their claims are equally legitimate? What is the evidence of terrorism or heroism? Is the arrival at a neutral word like “fighter” creating a false and unworthy balance?

Here’s what I like about Van Meek’s memo:

*He makes a distinction between avoidance of a word by a reporting staff and its overall banishment. If sources are using some of these words, so be it, they can appear in sound bytes.

*He expresses a preference for describing the specific actions of a person or group and their consequences. A decade ago, when we were arguing whether Iraq was experiencing a “civil war” or “sectarian violence,” my response was something like: “Who cares. Show me what these people are doing. Let me categorize it based on my experience.” If you show me a person wearing a mask cutting off the head of another man whose supposed crime is that he is a journalist or health worker, you don’t have to label him as an extremist. I get it.

*The standards and practices described in the guidebook are not fixed.  They can be revised based upon a process established to improve them. Read more

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