Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Setting the Agenda with 'Civil War'

Is "civil war" a loaded term?

NPR's Brooke Gladstone said last week that for many months, "the U.S. media have largely and delicately avoided using the term 'civil war' to describe the violence in Iraq, relying instead on all manner of qualifiers, like 'on the brink,' 'on the edge' and 'looming.' But pressure has mounted to reappraise the term, and on Monday morning NBC’s Matt Lauer announced a policy change."

The Times' Bill Keller told his staff to use the term “sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect.”

Is the use of "civil war" a political statement? Or is it splitting hairs?

Fresh from reading Sam Freedman's "Letter's to a Young Journalist," I'm inclined to say that it's difficult to definitely say when an editor should or shouldn't use a word.

Above, Keller played it carefully, and he's right - it shouldn't be used for dramatic effect (take note, New York Post). But Keller said to use it sparingly. Is that only because the term was debated in the public forum, and he's worried about his (read: the Times') back?

If the New York Times believes, under the auspice of its own in-depth reporting, that 'civil war' better reflects the situation in Iraq than "sectarian violence," shouldn't it simply use the term across the board? Or does that affect the New York Times' neutrality on the issue?

Almost every journalist would agree that, in an issue such as the above, the most neutral description possible should be used. But does that show that the paper is insecurely treading water until the political conflict over the word itself - that is, conservatives using "sectarian violence" and liberals using "civil war" ? Or that, despite the war of the words, one term could be, by definition, a better description?

Every paper relies on its reputation. It's funny to think that a simple choice of words could render a paper biased, or worse, activist and deliberately setting the agenda. In a time of waning newspaper influence, will Keller's stand ultimately be seen as a stand for accuracy or a capitulation to the political discourse in fear of retribution?

Only time will tell.

As a Times blog wrote, “We believe civil war should not become reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated.”

To what extent can we allow complication to dictate one term or another?

No comments: