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16 October 2014
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Terrorism, Use of Language When Reporting

Our approach

The Editorial Guideline focuses on the use of the word "terrorist":

"Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements. The word "terrorist" itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should try to avoid the term without attribution".[1]

The Guidelines do not ban the use of the word. However, we do ask that careful thought is given to its use by a BBC voice. There are ways of conveying the full horror and human consequences of acts of terror without using the word "terrorist" to describe the perpetrators. And there are a number of important editorial factors that must be considered before its use to describe individuals or a given group can be justified :

  • Value judgements

The value judgements frequently implicit in the use of the words "terrorist" or "terrorist group" can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about our impartiality. For example, the bombing of a bus in London was carried out by "terrorists", but the bombing of a bus in Israel was perpetrated by a "suicide bomber". Or again, "terrorists" in London bombed a tube train, but "insurgents" in Iraq have "assassinated" the Egyptian ambassador. The use of the words can imply judgement where there is no clear consensus about the legitimacy of militant political groups.

Have we assessed the merits of the different perpetrators' cause, the acts of the different Governments against the perpetrators, or even the value of civilian lives further from home? We must be careful not to give the impression that we have come to some kind of implicit -and unwarranted - value judgement.

Some will argue that certain events are so evidently acts of terror (and, therefore, perpetrated by "terrorists") that those descriptions are reasonable, and non-judgemental. However, the language we choose to use in reporting one incident cannot be considered in isolation from our reporting of other stories. So to use the word in incidents which we may consider obvious creates difficulties for less clear-cut incidents.

As David Spaull, then-Editor of World Service News wrote in 1988:

"Accepting that there are some actions which most people would recognise as a terrorist act- the hand grenade thrown into a crèche, the airport queue machine-gunned - we should still avoid the word. In the first place, our audience is as perceptive as we are, and can make up their own minds without being provided with labels. In the second place, there are actions which are not quite so clearly terrorism, and we should not be forced into the position of having to make value judgements on each event".[2]

On a breaking news story, ask yourself, first of all, is the use of the word "terrorist" accurate? Do we know, or do we suspect? It may be better to talk about an apparent act of terror or terrorism than label individuals or a group.

As the facts become clearer we will also wish to describe what has happened as accurately and as clearly as possible. Give as much information as possible. "Bomb attack" conveys more information more quickly than "terrorist attack", similarly "suicide bomber", "bomber", "assassin", "gun man" help fill in the picture.

We also need to ask ourselves whether by using "terrorist" we are taking a political position, or certainly one that may be seen as such.

  • Consistency

We can no longer isolate the BBC's coverage of the UK from how it reports the rest of the world. With global access to our services, the concept of a "primary audience" is problematic: reports made for News 24 are often shared on BBC World; UK bulletins are streamed on the internet; and users of BBC Online can compare the words used on global and UK pages with just a few mouse clicks.

Importantly even within the same bulletin on the same service, there can be issues of inconsistency in how we describe who is doing what to whom. "Militants in Gaza launch a rocket attack: terrorists plant bombs in London…" Don't assume that what you write or say is confined to a small part of our audience.

If you do want to use the word, reassure yourself that its use is going to aid rather than hinder understanding wherever it may be seen or heard.

  • Precise but effective language

Words can be used with precision to make clear what has happened and still convey the awful consequences without needing to resort to labels.

For example, Denis Murray, the Northern Ireland correspondent, reported the wake of the Omagh Bombing in 1998. His commentary shows how to get close both to the reality of what has happened and to the emotions and feelings of his audience without any labels or tags:

"There should have been a carnival here, instead there was carnage. Saturday afternoon shoppers here because it was safe, crowded together away from a bomb scare. Instead the bomb was in their midst.

It killed fourteen women and three young girls… It killed five men and four young boys…three of them came from County Donegal, another was a 12 year old boy from Madrid, they were all friends on an exchange scheme.

It killed three generations of one family…a 65 year old grandmother, her pregnant 30 year old daughter and her 18 month old daughter.

A litany of the dead…of the slaughtered innocents".[3]

It is worth asking yourself what the use of the word "terrorist" would have added to that simple but powerful statement of what had happened.

This is an issue of judgement. If you do decide to use the word "terrorist" do so sparingly, having considered what is said above, and take advice from senior editors.


[1] Editorial Guidelines, Section 11: War, Terror and Emergencies (Terror) [2]"Newsroom Policy on Neutral Language and Terrorism", David Spaull, (former) Editor, World Service News 1988 [3] BBC One News, 16 August 1998

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