The “torturous” struggle to state a fact

Stephen J. A. Ward

Stephen WardCritics have long accused objective reporters of hiding behind facts to avoid taking a stand on crucial issues.  

How little these people know about the courage it takes for journalists to be objective. How little they know about what it takes to stand behind a commitment to telling the truth, and to stating a fact as a fact.

How much courage does it require? Just follow the torturous debate in American news media on using the word “torture.” Should news reports call the actions described in CIA memos on interrogations of suspected terrorists torture?

In Telling the Brutal Truth,” New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt  provides a glimpse into newsroom discussions over whether to use the word torture or to use weaker language. Perhaps the actions should be described as “harsh” or “brutal” methods? If a report must use the word, maybe it should attribute the term to others. Reports could say, for example, that the methods were “widely denounced as illegal torture.”

I believe that news reports should describe such actions as torture. Journalism ethics supports the use of the word torture in this important case. The notion that journalism ethics requires avoiding the word shows how badly we misunderstand journalism ethics and objectivity.

Why do I think the word should be used?

The simple fact is that these acts are, under any sane definition, acts of torture. If bashing people against walls and waterboarding suspects — a technique beloved of the Spanish Inquisition — does not amount to torture, what counts? After World War II, the U.S. military prosecuted Japanese soldiers for waterboarding.

Moreover, the actions fall under the description of torture in major sources, such as the UN Convention Against Torture.

Article 1 of the convention defines torture as:

“Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed . . .”

The actions described in the memos satisfy this definition.

So why the hesitation to report a fact as a fact?

A number of objections have been raised against using the word torture. It is said that objective reporting shouldn’t include evaluative words, because they are subjective and indicate bias. Also, the word will offend many groups, and encourage criticism of the coverage.

These objections don’t hold water. If we banned evaluative words from reporting, reporters would have little to say. Reporting is replete with evaluative terms, from “economic recession” to “mental depression.” We would also have to stop using the words “harsh” and “brutal.” What would be left to describe the interrogations?

The issue is not whether terms carry emotional or evaluative meaning. The issue is whether (a) we have a clear definition of the word and central examples, and (b) we can show that a specific set of acts fits this definition. That is, whether we have the facts to justify the use of a controversial word.

For example, if brutal means cruel and unusual treatment and we have clear examples of brutal behavior, then we can objectively describe an action as brutal. What’s subjective about calling the actions of a father who keeps his daughter a prisoner in his basement for years cruel? The same holds for torture. What’s subjective about referring to waterboarding a suspect 266 times as torture? It’s a no-brainer. In such a case, it is ridiculous — and an abdication of journalism duty — to not call it torture.

Nor does the use of the word torture in a report entail that the reporter is badly biased or taking sides, as long as the use of the term is justified by the facts on the ground. By using the word in this way, the reporter does not have to imply that the torture was justified or unjustified, or that all torture is evil. Those are other, and larger, issues.

Of course some people will read bias into the use of the word torture in a news report, but some people will do that for any important term. Since when should such fears dictate newsroom policy on an issue as important as state-supported torture?

The main thing for newsrooms is to develop a clear understanding of torture, assemble central examples of torture, and then systematically and consistently use the word, where merited.

Yet it may still be asked: Why cause such problems for journalists? Why not avoid the term torture entirely?

The main reason is that a central aim of reporting is to describe actions and events as truthfully as possible. Objectivity is not about not offending readers or following the path of least resistance. The first principle of journalism ethics is not safety first. Opting for safer language can actually be unethical. It can run up against the primary duty of journalists to tell the truth or, to put it bluntly, to call a spade a spade. Journalists, whose primary tool is language, should develop clear and defensible conditions for using difficult terms, not avoid the problem.

Furthermore, it is socially important that journalists use clear and uncompromising language. When correct words are not used, journalists lend support to those who would soft-pedal the terrible reality of torture and the disgraceful actions of people in public office. To soft-pedal words such as torture, when the word obviously applies, fails to put issues of fundamental rights in the spotlight.

Only after we have explicitly recognized certain actions for what they are, can society get on with debating whether such actions can be justified by appeals to national security.

Only then can a liberal society meaningfully debate what approach it should take towards the fact – the obvious fact – of torture.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of  UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.