Reminder About The Word ‘Torture’

As you may have heard, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet wrote Thursday that “from now on, The Times will use the word ‘torture’ to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”

His post about the Times‘ position on use of that word is here. It came a week after President Obama’s “we tortured some folks” comment.

This is a good time to refresh our memory on NPR’s position. As with many such guidelines, it’s on our internal Wiki.
Here’s what Ellen Weiss wrote on Nov. 13, 2009. I’ve added some bold for emphasis:

“Contrary to some commentaries, NPR did not ban the word ‘torture.’ Rather, we gave our journalists guidance about how to avoid loaded language about interrogation techniques, realizing that no matter what words are chosen, we risk the appearance of taking one side or another. We asked our staff to avoid using imprecise descriptions that lump all techniques together, and to evaluate the use of the following descriptions, depending on context, including: ‘harsh’ or ‘extreme’ techniques; ‘enhanced interrogation techniques;’ and specific descriptions, such as ‘controlled drowning.’ We specifically advised them that they may use the word ‘torture’ when it makes sense in the context of the piece.

In the years since Ellen’s note, debate over the word has continued and we’ve applied the guidance. For example, here’s Robert Siegel this past April:

“Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee moved a step closer to publishing parts of a report about the torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11. Lawmakers voted to send the report on to the White House and to CIA. The CIA will determine how much of the five-year-long study can be declassified. And President Obama could be called upon to referee any dispute of how much of the report sees the light of day.”

Here’s Tom Gjelten in May 2013:

“[President] Obama banned those interrogation techniques on his second day in office. But he has largely avoided the debate over whether torture in some cases has produced valuable information. … The program did not ‘work,’ the [Senate] committee said, in the sense that the ‘brutal’ interrogations — the torture — produced no information, no leads, of any use in tracking down terrorists.”

We’re constantly discussing and reviewing the language we use. Our guidance on use of the word “torture”  comes down to the issue of whether it “makes sense in the context of the piece.” The Times says the test is whether “we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.” I would think that if NPR is confident interrogators “inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information” that is the sort of context our guideline suggests is relevant.

(Memmos; Aug. 8, 2014)

August 8, 2014

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