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.

Filed Under: jay rosen, journalism, patricia zengerle, style guide, torture, view from nowhere, waterboarding
Companies: reuters


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Sneeje (profile), 12 Sep 2014 @ 7:14am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Nigel (profile), 12 Sep 2014 @ 8:59am

      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..

      Nigel

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2014 @ 8:25am

    Massive disservice to those poor sods that were tortured.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2014 @ 8:37am

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2014 @ 8:47am

    If it happened to her...

    I bet she would call it torture.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    OldMugwump (profile), 12 Sep 2014 @ 8:55am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ann K, 12 Sep 2014 @ 8:56am

    It's= it is

    Its= possessive

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Kevin Horner, 12 Sep 2014 @ 9:22am

    Reuters

    I'm not sure why this is surprising. Reuters is in the business of selling stories and so they'really afraid if theyou say the US was torturing captives then right-wing papers won't buy from Reuters anymore.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Tom Stone, 12 Sep 2014 @ 9:44am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Scote, 12 Sep 2014 @ 9:49am

    On a related note, Reuters will no longer refer to fatal officer involved shootings as "shootings," instead the will be called "physically stressful suspect incapicitation techniques."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    BentFranklin (profile), 12 Sep 2014 @ 10:18am

    Let's crowdsource a ridiculous definition of "Reuters journalist".

    I'll start with "stenographer". Build on that...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2014 @ 10:36am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2014 @ 10:56am

    Maybe the Reuters reporter that wrote it should be on the receiving end , ya know if it's just "physically stressful interrogation techniques" actually I challenge them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 12 Sep 2014 @ 12:04pm

    Clarification

    Forcing someone to walk up a big hill as a device of coercion would still be torture.

    At very least it's a device that abusive PE instructors use to humiliate little weak wimpy prepubescent boys.

    I bet any form of stress can be perverted into a pain engine, and will be if society decides that specific thing is okay

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    dfed (profile), 12 Sep 2014 @ 12:45pm

    I'd be happy to explain to Reuters why I don't call their news 'news.' It might even take less words than them explaining why they don't call torture 'torture.'

    And if they really don't get it, I can draw it in crayon for them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Edward Teach, 12 Sep 2014 @ 1:37pm

    The Dilanian Technique

    Perhaps Ken Dilanian's cooperation with the CIA (https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/09/04/former-l-times-reporter-cleared-stories-cia-publicati on/) 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 12 Sep 2014 @ 11:10pm

    Omission

    I think their handbook omits the word "bootlickers"; specifically re their relationship with government.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2014 @ 3:51am

    If you google "reuters torture" you find an amazing number of articles from reuters where they don't refrain from using the t-word...

    So, what's with the hyprocisy?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Synonymous Howard, 13 Sep 2014 @ 9:05am

    So Reuters should use the word torture to indicate torture, but it is OK for you to use "reduction" to mean censorship? Why?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 13 Sep 2014 @ 11:15am

      "Reduction" for Censorship

      It is OK for you to use "reduction" to mean censorship?

      It is?

      Some people use copyright infringement takedown to mean censorship.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2014 @ 5:29am

    "A reporter should be accurately reporting the facts."

    Seems to me that one who reports a person as having been "water boarded" has reported quite accurately.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2014 @ 9:03pm

    MSM is propaganda for the masses.

    Once the bread and circuses are gone everything goes to shit

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Techdirt Logo Gear
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.