News Editor’s Blog·Editor’s Note
Editor in chief Brodie Fenlon responds to complaints to CBC News regarding the use of the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” in coverage following the attacks by Hamas in southern Israel.
Attribution of word ‘terrorist’ has been our policy for decades — mirrored by many other news organizations
Brodie Fenlon · CBC News
We use this editor’s blog to explain our journalism and what’s happening at CBC News. You can find more blogs here.
In the early hours of last week’s horrific attack by Hamas inside Israel, a note was sent to staff reminding them of a few topline practices when covering the attacks and how to access our internal language guide. The note was brief and included some links to more extensive guidance. The goal was to help our journalists in the heat of a major breaking news event remember a few basics. It was meant for an internal CBC News audience.
Unfortunately, the email was made public, leading to great confusion about how we work, and many complaints. In the interest of full transparency and wider understanding, I want to share below our response to those complaints in the hope it will clear up some of the confusion.
Hello and thank you for writing about our use of the word “terrorist.” As editor in chief of CBC News, I am responding on behalf of our news service, its leadership team and our journalists.
Let me first say that I have heard from many people who are deeply affected by what’s happened this past week. I greatly respect where you and others are coming from and I appreciate the opportunity to respond. I have bcc’d you on this email so I can reply at the same time to everyone who wrote to me or to the CBC’s ombudsman in the past week.
During a period of tragic breaking news in Israel, a screenshot of an internal reminder about our longstanding editorial standards was published on social media — without the full context of those standards as they are practised in our newsrooms. This spiralled into a controversy that I believe is based on an incomplete understanding of our work.
We have since been asked multiple times why CBC News would “ban” the use of the word “terrorist.” The answer is clear: we most certainly do not ban it. As a matter of fact, you may have heard and read that word many times on all CBC News platforms over the past week. Our journalists cite it and quote it often, with attribution. That means they also tell the audience who has used it and in what context.
Allow me to explain:
Within hours of these shocking Hamas attacks, we had several teams on the ground in Israel, more than any other Canadian news organization, and we documented in gruesome, explicit detail what transpired over that weekend. I believe that we, as a news organization, have accurately depicted the horror of what happened in those attacks – and there is no doubt in the minds of our audience about what Hamas did. I am sharing here a few of the recent episodes of The National and hope that you watch our journalism and let me know if we have lived up to our mission to report accurately on what happened: see for example here and here.
In our coverage, you will see multiple references to terrorism. You will hear the acts described as terror. You will hear that governments, including Canada’s, have designated Hamas a terrorist organization. And you will always hear those terms attributed to governments, officials, authorities, experts and politicians. (See, for example, how the word is used six separate times in this piece.)
Attribution of the word “terrorist” has been our policy for decades — mirrored by other news organizations such as the BBC, AP, AFP and Reuters, among many others. Our focus is to report the facts of such atrocities with accuracy, clarity and detail; to convey the scale and scope of violent acts wherever they occur; to quote the people affected, and to convey the views of officials and experts on these events. We bear witness. But CBC News does not itself designate specific groups as terrorists, or specific acts as terrorism, regardless of the region or the events, because these words are so loaded with meaning, politics and emotion that they can end up being impediments to our journalism.
CBC News is independent of any and all governments, yet we and other news organizations have been regularly lobbied over the years by many opposing groups to label certain people or acts of violence as terrorism — precisely because the word is so important to them and carries so much weight.
To be clear, this has nothing to do with Hamas or Israel, and nothing to do with the intensity of suffering and horror we saw last week. Here is how it is stated in an excerpt of our language guide, a sort of internal dictionary that our staff refers to when reporting on stories like these:
Exercise extreme caution before using the words terrorist and terrorism. While the language is not seriously disputed in some cases, it’s less clear if not highly contested at other times — which can lead to virtually endless questions about consistency and impartiality in our coverage of various attacks around the world. Put another way: The words, themselves, can become impediments to reporting. For this reason, generally avoid labelling any specific bombing or other assault as a “terrorist act” unless this term is attributed (in a TV or radio clip, or in a direct quote on the web).
Examples: We should refer to the deadly suicide bombing at an airport in Moscow in January 2011 as an “attack,” not as a “terrorist attack.” The same applies to the London bombings in July 2005, the Madrid train bombings in March 2004 and the attacks against the United States in 2001, which CBC News prefers to call “the Sept. 11 attacks” or some similar expression. (The BBC, Reuters and some other news organizations follow a similar practice.)
Terrorism generally implies attacks against unarmed civilians for political, religious or some other ideological reason. But it’s a highly controversial term that can leave journalists taking sides in a conflict.
By restricting ourselves to neutral language, we aren’t faced with the problem of calling one incident a “terrorist act” (e.g., the destruction of the World Trade Center) while classifying another as, say, a mere “bombing” (e.g., the destruction of a crowded shopping mall in the Middle East).
You may find a few examples of our policy being applied unevenly in some of our content over the years. Like with any language style guidance, in the huge amount of content that we publish and air every day, attribution is sometimes missed. Editors work hard to make our content consistent but errors may slip through. Again, that is why we always reinforce our policies with our news teams. Consistency matters.
If you wish to read more about this topic, please click on this review from 2011 by CBC’s independent ombudsman at the time on the very same issue. As he wrote then, “One of journalism’s challenges is to ensure the audience trusts the fair-minded quality of the gathering and presentation of information.… Even when atrocities are committed, some argue that the reflexive use of the terms is adding little information while sending a signal to a constituency that a journalist is on a particular side. That undercuts the credibility of reporting, present and future.”
I am not trying to convince you that this is the only way to approach editorial language. There are other forms of journalism out there and other approaches. But I do hope that my explanation has reassured you of our good faith in this work, based on our mandate as an independent public service news organization — even if you disagree with the outcome here. Please be assured that you have been heard and that your views will be included in ongoing conversations around our use of language. Language and the meaning of words are continually and constantly being assessed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brodie Fenlon is editor in chief and executive director of programs and standards for CBC News.