Reuters Tries To Explain Away Its Refusal To Call Torture 'Torture'

from the the-view-from-nowhere dept

We recently pointed out that in a Reuters news report about the pending (and ultimately delayed) release of the declassified executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s $40 million report on the CIA’s torture program, Reuters reporter Patricia Zengerle refused to call the torture program “torture” instead describing it as “physically stressful interrogation techniques” within the following context:

Human rights activists and many politicians have labeled as “torture” some of the physically stressful interrogation techniques, such as water boarding – or simulated drowning – that were authorized under former President George W. Bush.

We then went on to point out how odd it is that Zengerle apparently can’t come to call it torture herself, given that by pretty much every definition out there, including the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture (not to mention President Obama himself) have defined the practices as “torture.”

Journalism professor Jay Rosen read the story and decided to ask Zengerle and Reuters about it. Rosen is the guy who has helped to highlight and call out this weak form of journalism known as “the view from nowhere” in which reporters refuse to actually say what something is, preferring to avoid any such claim. At best, such journalists feel the need to find someone to quote to call something what it is, rather than saying so themselves. Zengerle told Rosen he needed to talk to Reuters PR people, which was reasonably perplexing. Since when do journalists take their orders from PR?

Nonetheless, Rosen did exactly that. At first he was referred to Reuters’ “Handbook of Journalism” which is the organization’s style guide. Except, as Rosen noted, there doesn’t appear to be anything in there concerning whether or not Reuters reporters can call torture “torture.” In response, the PR person told him:

We have no formal policy regarding the designation of certain practices as torture. Our approach, in general, is to factually describe a technique — such as waterboarding — and attribute the characterization of it as torture to credible sources.

That is… an unsatisfactory answer to say the least. The idea, of course, (as one of our commenters on the story noted) is to “stay away from emotionally charged words.” But that’s not reporting. That’s a cop out. Is torture an emotionally charged word? Possibly, but it’s also accurate. It’s not debatable. Under every definition of torture, practices like waterboarding fit. When reporters like Zengerle take the cheap way out, they actually make things even worse. Calling torture like waterboarding “physically stressful interrogation techniques,” it may avoid the “emotionally charged” term of “torture,” but it does a disservice to readers by underplay what is really happening when someone is waterboarded.

A reporter should be accurately reporting the facts. And that means when something is torture, they should call it torture.

When a Reuters PR person tries to brush this aside by arguing that Zengerle “factually described a technique,” she’s not telling the truth. Calling waterboarding and other CIA torture techniques as merely “physically stressful” is an outright misrepresentation of the fact that these techniques — submitting someone to severe mental or physical pain for the purpose of obtaining information — is the very definition of torture. Walking up a big hill may be “physically stressful.” Waterboarding is not merely physically stressful. It’s torture. Reuters does a disservice to truth in pretending otherwise.

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Comments on “Reuters Tries To Explain Away Its Refusal To Call Torture 'Torture'”

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Sneeje (profile) says:

Thanks for pushing this Mike...

I think it is important to be clear about what you mean by “When reporters like Zengerle take the cheap way out, they actually make things even worse.”

What’s worse:

When those associated with widely disseminated sources of information don’t follow rigorous critical thinking themselves (disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence), they support the view that any perspective is legitimate. This is how we get governments that can define words, how presidents can dissemble over “is” and how sports organizations can allow women to accept responsibility for their own beatings.

The other point, which is more debatable, is whether or not you believe that journalists are making it easier for people to engage in torture. This is the age-old ethical dilemma–is using negative and evaluative language an opinion or is it reporting the issue?

I agree with Mike, the first point, at least in this case, eliminates consideration of the second. What constitutes torture is not up for debate and therefore cannot be considered opinion or subjective inflammatory language.

Nigel (profile) says:

Re: Thanks for pushing this Mike...

“The other point, which is more debatable, is whether or not you believe that journalists are making it easier for people to engage in torture.”

At first I thought that was a bit of stretch but 20 seconds later I arrived at “unfortunate side effect”

I would also posit that its largely a moot point. The position still assumes, in this case, that some transparency will somehow fix the issue. I seem to think otherwise. The US will still torture folks with impunity and not give a shit what people think.

I suspect my glass is half empty today lol..


Anonymous Coward says:

i wonder what this person would call someone that wanged a cattle prod up her backside and what she would call the ‘act’? then put a couple of electrodes on to her even more private parts and keep adjusting the current from low to high, while she cried out in pain, stating she didn’t know anything’! what about then hanging her upside down in a barrel of water, bringing her out when she was on the verge of drowning? would she call that torture or just some sick sex game?

some just wont see the truth, others wont admit to the truth. when it’s happening to someone else, it’s easy to ignore or give backing. when it’s happening to you, it’s a whole different ball game!

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Journalism school

Professional journalists are trained to worry about “fairness”, not truth. Reality, they are told, is socially constructed, and there is no such thing as objective truth.

Fairness means reporting “both sides” of a story even when there are 3 or 4 sides, or when it’s obvious who is lying and who isn’t.

If journalists were interested in truth, they wouldn’t pretend to be impartial (they’re human, of course they have opinions of their own). Instead they’d openly admit their viewpoint and let the reader judge their arguments.

There are still countless newspapers in the US with “Republican” or “Democrat” in their title. I suspect the relatively high esteem which journalists enjoy is a legacy from the era when these newspapers were founded.

Before the rise of “professional” journalism in the middle of the 20th century, truth was assumed to exist (even if it was difficult to find), and publishers were proud to announce their political allegiance.

Tom Stone (profile) says:

Reuters is a PR department

“Since when do journalists take their orders from a PR Department”?. Pretty much since newspapers started taking advertisements. They have always gone very easy on big ad buyers and “Members of the club”.
As to when it became formalized, that happened when newspaper ad revenue started declining. I’m in NorCal, Look at the SF Chronicle, SJ Mercury news, Santa Rosa Press Democrat and tell me that their PR department doesn’t have a final say in what gets printed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Reuters didn’t seem to have a problem using the word “beheading”, yet they feel uncomfortable with the word “torture”. I guess it all depends on who’s doing the beheading and who’s doing the torturing.

If the US is performing the action, then it’s considered too “emotionally charged”. If not, then it’s ok to use the proper words to describe it.

Edward Teach says:

The Dilanian Technique

Perhaps Ken Dilanian’s cooperation with the CIA ( is a standard mode for national/international reporters.

I personally have often wondered about the favorable treatment the US TLA’s get from mainstream media. When I read “The Intercept” on Dilanian passing articles through CIA editing, I no longer wondered.

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