Loaded label “terrorism” misleads readers, stokes prejudice

A stack of newspapers Photo by Jon S. via Flickr.
A stack of newspapers (Photo by Jon S. via Flickr)

The labels “terror,” “terrorism,” “terrorist” remain the most meaningless and manipulated terms in political discourse today. Yet the terms are consequential when used by law enforcement or in mainstream media stories. They can lead to a misinformed populace supporting laws and government practices that chip away at cherished American freedoms. A “terrorism” prosecution can bring increased penalties, and several court cases have shown the term has been used loosely in cases against Muslim Americans.

For this reason, when journalists repeat these vague and loaded labels, it devalues the quality of journalism; deprives readers of fact-based, understandable information; creates confusion and cements false stereotypes that fuel prejudice and hate.

Perhaps most damaging to public trust and the American system of self-government is when law enforcement’s use of the label “terror/ism/ist” goes unquestioned and is used in news stories and headlines, rather than broken down, questioned and then written with fact-based, understandable language.

There have been several cases recently where law enforcement claimed that persons they arrested, or even killed, were linked to global criminal enterprises, when a person simply “liked” Facebook pages that promoted violent content, re-tweeted Tweets or shared YouTube videos. This may pass legal muster under prosecutorial discretion, but journalists have a duty to deliver clear, concrete information to audiences, rather than blanket assertions that become an obstacle to audiences’ understanding of events.

In recent years, agents provocateur nationwide have been sent by the FBI to misguide unstable young Muslim men into committing fake, staged “crimes.” The agents provide these youth with hundreds of thousands of dollars in promised compensation, equipment, motivation and expertise to supposedly plan an attack. These manufactured plans were then purportedly “foiled” and followed by claims that an actual threat was averted, when there was none. That very inaccurate message is passed along in most media reports.

These practices, and specific cases, are documented in an Al-Jazeera America feature called “Informants” and on an episode of the radio show “This American Life,” titled “The Convert.” Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute have also written that dozens of so-called “terrorism” prosecutions are rife with abuse when individuals who don’t have the funds, knowledge, equipment or even the desire to carry out such attacks, are chosen by FBI agents based on the individual’s religious beliefs.

Complicating this problematic term, there is no one agreed-upon definition of “terror/ism/ist” that is used across law enforcement agencies. None. Almost every federal law enforcement agency has its own definition and each agency’s definition is fairly open and vague with room for prosecutorial discretion, making them vulnerable to personal biases and political and public relations considerations.

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of State maintains a list of what it calls Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), which is not be based on objectively applied guidelines. In 2011 and 2012, the group M.E.K. spent $1.5 million within about a year on Washington, D.C. lobby firms, in addition to tens of thousands  of dollars in “speaking fees” to influential government officials, to successfully lobby to have its name removed from the FTO list.

Furthermore, analyses by CAIR-WA show that the term “terrorism” and its variants have been used by mainstream journalists nationwide almost exclusively in reference to the actions of Muslims in the U.S. and worldwide, but not used in stories of violent extremism where the actors were non-Muslim.

This can be misleading — in fact, between the years 1980 and 2005, 94 percent of terror attacks on American soil have been by non-Muslim groups, according to the FBI. While the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were the deadliest in our nation’s history, of the total number of attacks during this period, 42 percent were by Latino groups, 24 percent by “left wing” groups, 7 percent by Jews in the name of Judaism, 6 percent by Muslims in the name of Islam, 5 percent by communists, and 16 percent from other backgrounds.

And year after year for the past decade, between 98 percent and 100 percent of “terror” attacks in EU Member States in 2012 were committed by non-Muslims, according to the European Police Office (Europol) report released in 2013.

The mission of the Society of Professional Journalists calls for a duty and responsibility to inform the public by providing information in an accurate, comprehensive and understandable manner, which helps readers understand issues that affect their lives. So, in an age with such heightened and often exaggerated rhetoric that misleads audiences and distorts perceptions and knowledge of current events, what can journalists do to ensure that their audiences receive fact-based, information delivered to them in an accurate, comprehensive and most importantly understandable manner?

Generally, when reporting on a crime, especially where the suspect is Muslim, rather than using the label “terrorism” or its variants, journalists should use accurate, fact-based language, free of religiously loaded language, to describe groups, persons and events at hand.

When law enforcement officials assert that a plot was “foiled” or that a person “linked” to a foreign group was apprehended, journalists should ask questions that get to real facts beyond the talking points to learn who conceived and provided materials for a “plot” or what exactly is meant by “link” and then report the specific facts, not the spokesperson’s talking points, to the public.

When a law enforcement official or other interviewee claims “national security” or labels a crime as “terrorism” or a perpetrator as a “terrorist” here are just a few follow up questions to ask:

  • Why do you believe this crime is an act of terrorism?
  • What facts/evidence/information have you found to justify your assertion that this individual or group is associated with a known Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)?
  • What is your definition of terrorism?
  • Did the suspect touch a real weapon?
  • Did the suspect ever use a real weapon?
  • Did the suspect actually devise the plan or was it devised by or the help of the informant?
  • Did the suspect actually communicate directly with an actual member of an FTO? Through what medium of communication? For how long?

The message of the Society of Professional Journalist’s mission statement cannot be emphasized enough: “To ensure that the concept of self-government outlined by the U.S. Constitution remains a reality into future centuries, the American people must be well informed in order to make decisions regarding their lives, and their local and national communities. It is the role of journalists to provide this information in an accurate, comprehensive, timely and understandable manner.”

The second sentence in this statement is vitally important to the lives of millions of fellow Americans and CAIR-WA stands ready to help fair-minded journalists pursuing this ideal in reporting about Islam and Muslims.