A recently released report, “Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media”, studied the media’s treatment of the word torture and found that the United States’ four biggest newspapers stopped calling waterboarding torture after 2004.
The four newspapers are The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.
The BBC described the practice of waterboarding as “a prisoner being stretched on his back or hung upside down, having a cloth pushed into his mouth and/or plastic film placed over his face and having water poured onto his face. He gags almost immediately.”
The study noted that from the 1930s until 2002, newspapers “almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture.” Specifically, waterboarding was described as torture in 81.5% of articles in The New York Times and 96.3% of articles in The Los Angeles Times.
But, the study found that from 2002 to 2008, the four newspapers “almost never referred to waterboarding as torture.”
“The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.”
Interestingly, while the study, by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Polics and Public Policy, found similar results in its analysis of the four newspapers, many reporters singled out The New York Times in write-ups on the Harvard study.
The New York Times’ Media Decoder blog reported July 2 that “Some commentators seized on the study as evidence that major media organizations were submissive to the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks, a period when some writers said there was a chilling effect on free speech.”
Media Decoder reported that The New York Times’ executive editor Bill Keller called the study “somewhat misleading and tendentious” and that waterboarding defenders say it’s not torture.
“When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves,” Media Decoder quoted Keller as writing in an e-mail. “Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture. Nobody reading the Times’s coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word ‘brutal.’)”
Media Decoder wrote that The New York Times doesn’t have a rule on when the word torture should be used and that standards editor Phil Corbett wrote in an e-mail that “In general, when writing about disputed, contentious and politically loaded topics, we try to be precise, accurate and as neutral as possible; factual descriptions are often better than shorthand labels.”
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent blogged July 1 “The Times’ explanation is that once Bush officials started arguing that waterboarding wasn’t torture, the only way to avoid taking sides was to stop using the word. But here’s the problem: Not using the word also consitutes taking a side: That of the Bush administration.”
Sargent wrote that the Bush administration said waterboarding isn’t torture because then it isn’t illegal under international law.
The United Nations’ human rights commissioner Louise Arbour said in 2008 that waterboarding is torture.
Andrew Sullivan wrote July 1 for the Atlantic that the New York Times statement sounds like “an admission that the NYT did change its own established position to accommodate the Cheneyite right.”
The Calgary Herald reported The Washington Post’s national security editor, Cameron Barr, said “After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration. But we often cited others describing waterboarding as torture in stories that mentioned the technique…We gave prominence to stories reporting official determinations that waterboarding or other techniques constituted torture.”
The Calgary Herald wrote that Barr has “lost sight of the media’s role in a free society.”
“Even if an issue is politically contentious, the legal and moral landscape should not budge an inch, especially not because accused war criminals contend that their crimes were not crimes at all.”
Yahoo! News wrote July 1 that “by not calling waterboarding tortue – even though it is, and the paper defined it that way in the past – the Times created a factual contradiction between its newer work and its own archives.”