We’ve been talking about covering the difficult topic of torture for quite a while now, and the idea resurfaced again in staff meetings with the recent release of the Bush administration memos on interrogation techniques. About the time we were renewing our efforts to find a voice on the topic, I opened up the Sunday paper to find Clark Hoyt’s editorial “The Brutal Truth” — an account of the linguistic evolution of The New York Times’ torture and interrogation coverage.

Hoyt outlines the decision to use the word “brutal” to describe what the Bush administration had labeled “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the reader mail they received in response. Some thought the word was a cop-out, one reader writing “Why can’t The New York Times call torture by its proper name?” While another writes “The Times has simply placed itself as one actor in a political fight, not a neutral media outlet.”

This sort of criticism was in our heads as we produced this week’s program “The Long Shadow of Torture”.” Unlike The Times, we don’t get to hash out our editorial choices over a series of articles — we pretty much have one chance to get it right, and then have to live with our decisions after broadcast. I found that many of the questions asked during production mirrored the ones posed in Hoyt’s editorial; as a journalist, when does your choice of words compromise the integrity of your reporting? Using harsher terminology may seem to impart a biased viewpoint, while softer words might be complicit in obscuring the truth. Is “detainee abuse” more accurate than “torture,” or vice versa?

Perhaps my favorite part of Hoyt’s account is the linguist Deborah Hannon’s response to his presentation of the “brutal” issue:

“The search for words that are not in any way evaluative is hopeless,” she told me. “All words have connotations.”

This statement makes the prospect of objective journalism a daunting one. What do you think, did we we come out OK on this program? What kind of connotations did we inevitably inject into the conversation?

Share Your Reflection



I found the program discussion engrossing; I followed up by listening to the extended interview. I have been thinking about this since then. First, kudos for bringing this topic to an examination of ethics. Specifically about the language, I have both a personal and a generational perspective. Personally, I prefer direct language. People die, not pass away. People are killed, not casualties of war. Women and children are killed, not 'collateral damage was done.' Women are battered, not 'victims of domestic violence.' Our government planned and carried out torture, not 'interrogation techniques.'
But I have been somewhat surprised not to hear in the public discourse the perspective of my generation, raised during the cold war. I can't be the only person who remembers hearing about the terrible tortures practiced by the Soviets and North Koreans on our solders, as part of the propaganda campaign against the communists. Am I alone in instantly associating what my government has done with those heartily condemned practices 50 years ago? I, like many of my peers, read 1984 when I was in college. Don't many of us remember and reference RealSpeak?
thanks again for your work in bringing the real issues of our day to ethical and spiritual examination.

I tried on "The Long Shadow of Torture" but when I heard the phrase "Bush Administration" early in the piece knew where this was going. I didn't feel like this one was up to Krista's usual par. The problem is war isn't pretty any way you slice it and it isn't going to be made more pretty if we just stop doing "this, this and, of course, this." I pray for peace every day and try my best to be a peacemaker in this world. And at the same time I live with the blatant reality that there are those out there who themselves will stop at nothing to harm me and mine and my way of life. When the God of the Bible is referred to as the Lord of Hosts he was always "kicking some butt." Ironically, pretty or no, we have to do what needs to be done in order to live peaceably.

Eric Mayer