Church shooting: Choose your words carefully

June 18, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
This image has been provided by the Charleston Police Department.(Charleston Police Department via AP)

This image has been provided by the Charleston Police Department.(Charleston Police Department via AP)

I wanted to share some thoughts prompted by an email I got this morning by Matt Jaworowski, a Media General Digital Content Producer.

Matt noticed a barrage of social media comments wondering why journalists are not using the word “terrorist” to describe the man who shot up a Charleston, South Carolina church. Matt pointed me toward tweets like this one:

The shooter, who police say is  21-year-old Dylann Roof, killed 9 people including the pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

These hours, after such an event, are the times when journalists should be using subjective adjectives sparingly. Politicians, families of the dead and community leaders will say those things. You don’t have to.

These are the times when journalists should remain factual and focused on truth-telling, not guessing.

Is this shooting in Charleston an act of “terrorism?” We don’t know yet.

This word, “terrorism” is such a loaded term. The BBC has guidelines about how and when to use the term:


We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly. Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements. The word “terrorist” itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should try to avoid the term, without attribution. We should let other people characterise while we report the facts as we know them.

We should not adopt other people’s language as our own. It is also usually inappropriate to use words like “liberate”, “court martial” or “execute” in the absence of a clear judicial process. We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened. We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as “bomber”, “attacker”, “gunman”, “kidnapper”, “insurgent, and “militant”. Our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.

The Guardian’s David Shariatmadari rooted out some other definitions of terrorism.

From the European Union:

  • seriously intimidating a population, or
  • unduly compelling a government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act, or
  • seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation

And from the United Nations Security Council:

[Terrorism comprises] criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, and all other acts which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism

Police describe Roof as “a white male.” That description becomes reportable and even useful given that the shooting occurred in an AME church and that police are investigating the shooting as a “hate crime.”

Late Wednesday, the story has emerged that the shooter allowed one woman to live to tell what happened. The eyewitness has not spoken to journalists but passed the story to a cousin of the deceased pastor. The shooter was quoted as saying “‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.”

When I heard the quote I quickly defaulted to my understanding that the shooting was a white supremacist. A moment of reflection later I began wondering:

  • Is the quote accurate?
  • Who was the shooter referring to?  Church members? Christians? Or black people?
  • Why would he kill women and say, “You rape our women?”

Is this shooting in Charleston, South Carolina an act of terrorism? We don’t know yet.  My advice to Matt was to stick to the facts, publish as much information as possible to catch the killer, then we can begin to understand why he did what he did.

For another point of view on this issue, read this column from Peter Bergen