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Readers See Tortuous Logic In Avoiding "Torture"

By Andy Alexander

For many, The Post's logic on use of the word “torture” is, well, tortuous. Rarely a day passes without readers e-mailing to demand that the paper stop using terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe what they believe was outright “torture” of terror detainees.

Here’s the latest, from Paul in St. Louis, who wrote about Bush administration authorizations allowing prisoners to be subjected to waterboarding, or simulated drowning:

“This is a crime under both federal and international law. Crimes should be called what they are. You would not call embezzlement ‘Unauthorized Personalization of Assets,’ would you? Nor would you call burglary ‘Forced Garage Sale.' Then why do you fail to call a crime like torture what it truly is?"

The Post has frequently used the word “torture” on its editorial pages, which are devoted to opinions. But on its news pages, the paper applies a different standard.

Here’s an explanation I received last month from national intelligence reporter Joby Warrick in response to a similar query from a reader:

“Torture is a word that has strict legal connotations under both U.S. and international law. Unless a person is found to have committed acts of torture by a court of law, we cannot make the accusation in print. For the same reason, we do not call people murderers or rapists in print until they are convicted, even when the evidence of guilt seems clear. For us to unilaterally make such a judgment would not only violate journalistic principles but would severely damage our credibility as impartial observers. We report facts as clearly as we can, and leave it to readers and judges to decide whether the actions constituted a crime.”

In an online chat last month, Post national political reporter Paul Kane underscored the point. “You can't call someone a convicted murderer until he/she has actually been convicted."

Thus, news stories in the Post often refer to “alleged torture,” but do not state it as fact.

The New York Times has applied a similar standard on its news pages, as described recently in a column by its public editor.

By Andy Alexander  | May 20, 2009; 11:41 AM ET
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“The New York Times has applied a similar standard on its news pages, as described recently in a column by its public editor.”

The Times, in its obituary of Harold E. Fischer Jr., had no problem describing the treatment he received while a prisoner in China as “torture”, despite the fact that the descriptions of the treatment he received from the Chinese was milder than the treatment terrorist suspects have received from the United States.

The Post avoided this problem by giving no description at all of the treatment Col. Fischer received while a Chinese prisoner. Considering that his torture was the lead in the Times’ obituary, the Post’s total omission of it seems somewhat strange.

Posted by: hgillette | May 20, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Dear Andy:

Thanks for addressing this issue publicly--it's something that has worried me for some time about the Washington Post's coverage of the unfolding torture scandal. As I mentioned in my e-mail to the Ombudsman in January, one of my specific concerns regarding the adoption of euphemisms in news reporting is that it allows those defending their actions to set the terms of the debate.

The not unfamiliar PR technique of substituting euphemisms for more visceral and even incendiary terms is certainly something appropriate to report on, but not subscribe to: "torture" -> "enhanced interrogation", "mercenary" -> "security contractor", "civilian casualties" -> "collateral damage", ... The debates on the topics these terms represent is critical: how do we wage wars, how do we interrogate, try, and convict (or not) suspects, and how do we balance security with fundamental liberties?

The media, as a self-proclaimed independent estate and critic of government, industry, and even itself, needs to call things what they are -- if that means placing the word "alleged" in front of "torture", that's fine, and even good. Perhaps, in the end, the American People will accept the need for harsh, possibly abusive, interrogations, but they shouldn't do it by being lulled into it through the use of terms like "enhanced interrogation techniques". Instead, they should do it knowing that it is what it is: torture.


Posted by: rwat | May 21, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Waterboarding is defined as torture and as a crime. The United States has admitted to waterboarding. Therefore, the United States has admitted to committing a crime. I don't see the problem.

Posted by: Expatriate | May 22, 2009 7:46 AM | Report abuse

These are word games. Why not use the phrase "alleged torture." Anyone who's ever worked at a newspaper knows the terms "alleged burgler" and so forth are used all the time. Why not be straight with the readers here?

Posted by: celtics700 | May 24, 2009 7:52 PM | Report abuse

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