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CBC Defends Ban on T Word

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Memo distributed to CBC staff on use of the word ‘terrorism.’

‘Terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’: Exercise extreme caution before using either word.

Avoid labelling any specific bombing or other assault as a “terrorist act” unless it’s attributed (in a TV or Radio clip, or in a direct quote on the Web). For instance, we should refer to the deadly blast at that nightclub in Bali in October 2002 as an “attack,” not as a “terrorist attack.” The same applies to the Madrid train attacks in March 2004, the London bombings in July 2005 and the attacks against the United States in 2001, which the CBC prefers to call “the Sept. 11 attacks” or some similar expression. (The BBC, Reuters and many others follow similar policies.)

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).

Use specific descriptions. Instead of reaching for a label (“terrorist” or “terrorism”) when news breaks, try describing what happened.

For example, “A suicide bomber blew up a bus full of unarmed civilians early Monday, killing at least two dozen people.” The details of these tragedies give our audience the information they need to form their own conclusions about what type of attack it was.

Rather than calling assailants “terrorists,” we can refer to them as bombers, hijackers, gunmen (if we’re sure no women were in the group), militants, extremists, attackers or some other appropriate noun.

It’s not practical to draft a list of all contexts in which the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” are appropriate in news stories. For instance, we might write that Canada and other countries have passed “anti-terrorism” legislation, or that intelligence agencies have lists of groups that they consider “terrorist” organizations, or that the U.S. government has issued another warning about an increased risk of “terrorist attacks” in the next few weeks, or that certain people have been charged with acts of “terrorism.” Use common sense.

The guiding principle should be that we don’t judge specific acts as “terrorism” or people as “terrorists.” Such labels must be attributed.

As CBC News editor-in-chief Tony Burman has pointed out: “Our preference is to describe the act or individual, and let the viewer or listener or political representatives make their own judgment.”

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