Watch Your Language: Words of War

Reporters relish moments like Monday’s, when the rhetorical fog of war lifted briefly and some startlingly straightforward speech reached a worldwide audience.  President Bush, in a mid-meal chat with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was talking with his mouth full, but his words were quite clear.  It was also clear he didn’t know his microphone was open.

Referring apparently to the United Nations, Bush said, “See, the irony is what they really need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.”

What the president calls irony may not be obvious to all, but what he thinks of Hezbollah’s actions couldn’t be easier to understand. 

Broadcast news organizations…have considerations cable networks don’t face. Not surprisingly, the video was cnn.com’s most popular by midday Monday.  CNN’s  Web site headline called the president’s comment “the sh_t heard ‘round the world.”  But in content online and on air, CNN played the operative word in all its four-letter glory.  Broadcast news organizations, on the other hand, have considerations cable networks don’t face.  It will be interesting to see if any holder of a broadcast license chooses this case as a test of the Federal Communications Commission’s commitment to keeping the airwaves clean.

Now, there I see irony. 

(We at Poynter examined alternatives to using the expletive in its entirety.  We came down in favor of more fully reporting the truth of the incident, seeing only minimal risk of offending readers by quoting the president verbatim. JIm Romenesko rounds up what others are saying about use of the word here and here. Bob Steele discusses the issue in an Everyday Ethics post here.)

Beyond the banquet banter of the G-8 meetings in Russia, the current crisis in the Middle East offered very few laughs.  So far, world powers, pundits and journalists seem to be struggling with words.
 
As of Monday, ABC News took an understated stance, at least in what it named its coverage.  Even as its correspondents scrambled for cover amid missile strikes, the network’s graphics labeled the story “The Brink of War.”  Just where the line between “brink” and actual war lies is unclear. 

It’s also unclear how news organizations can best balance competing interests when it comes to showcasing their coverage:  Labels are a legitimate producing tool that can help readers and viewers process reporting.  But catchy graphics and snappy titles don’t always accommodate the nuances of the news.  Some words fit the space available better than they fit the facts and context of complex stories.

(Does your newsroom label ongoing coverage?  If so, who chooses the title, and how?  What label, if any, has your news organization attached to coverage of the fighting underway now in the Middle East? Share your approach and ideas by providing feedback at the end of this article. ) 

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich may not match the president for spontaneity, but he didn’t tip-toe around the issue Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” – and he knew the microphone was on:  Gingrich rattled off global hot spots from Lebanon to North Korea, concluding that they constitute World War III, already in progress.

“I believe if you take all the countries I just listed, that you’ve been covering, put them on a map, look at all the different connectivity, you’d have to say to yourself this is, in fact, World War III,” he told Tim Russert.   Gingrich called current conflicts only “the early stages of what I would describe as the third world war.”  On the other hand, he said, “This is not the fifth day of the war. This is the 58th year of the effort by those who want to destroy Israel.”

Israel has a long history with the word restraint. Whether it has much experience with the actual practice is of course a matter of great debate.Most political and government sources in this country have been displaying what the Bush administration advises Israel to use:  restraint.  In fact, a Google search pairing that word with “Israel” produces about 6.5 million results in less than one fifth of a second.  For the record, some of those go back to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.  Israel has a long history with the word restraint.  Whether it has much experience with the actual practice is of course a matter of great debate.   

The restraint is remarkable in the U. S. State Department’s message to Americans unlucky enough to be in Lebanon at the moment.  Anxious expatriates searching the official online “Lebanon Situation Update” for the word “evacuation” won’t find it.

“The US Department of State and the US Department of Defense continue working on a plan to help American citizens who wish to depart Lebanon to leave in a secure and orderly manner,” says www.state.gov.  “To assist in the development of that operation, the U.S. Government is sending an assessment team to Beirut to facilitate the safe departure of Americans who wish to leave.”

That seems a subdued response in light of the extraordinary destruction in and around Beirut these days.  And when words are hard to find, some surprising choices creep into coverage.   

Monday afternoon, CNN’s Kyra Phillips interviewed Steven Hartov, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces.  He said detailed, live reporting from Haifa and other Hezbollah target zones could turn news organizations into “forward observers for the enemy,” allowing missile launchers to adjust their aim for more deadly accuracy. 

Moments after issuing that stern warning, Hartov said the extent of bombardment over the border between Israel and Lebanon is without precedent in his experience.  Hartov said he’d seen missiles fired from both sides before, but until now only in numbers he described as “onesies and twosies.” 

It wasn’t quite the kind of battle assessment I expected from a military analyst, but Hartov wasn’t the first person to deviate from script in assessing the situation at the Israeli-Lebanese border.  And he surely won’t be the last.    

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