The colossal difference between two words with big meaning
Following the October 2017 massacre in Las Vegas where a man on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel shot at a concert across the street, killing 58 people and injuring 851, journalists found it difficult to say whether it was a terrorist attack or not, including News1130.
There is no one definition that fits all attacks, according to Bruce Claggett, senior managing editor at News1130. “We have discussions that are ongoing—it’s a case-by-case situation,” says Claggett, citing political affiliation, group allegiances and what police, experts and political leaders are saying about the situation as factors that help inform their decision. “That helps guide us whether it’s terrorism or not. They’re not the only determinants, but it really helps us when we think, ‘Is this the one that we put that label on?’”
That’s the tricky line that news outlets are treading when covering attacks: finding a definition of terrorism that stays true to what terrorism is, but also delves into the nuance of each attack.
A review of coverage of recent attacks might indicate that the word is applied randomly, but newsrooms across Canada make conscious choices in how they label attacks. Bill Amos, a journalism instructor at BCIT, says that, in general, media are doing a good job. But while he feels being cautious is good, there are times when the word “terrorism” isn’t been used—and it should.
“I think there’s a category of terrorism that’s not being accurately labelled as terrorism,” Amos says. “I’m going almost the other direction: rather than going back on defining event X or Y as terrorist, I would say maybe we need to label some violent shootings or events as terrorism—even if they were done just by one person.”
Claggett says he prefers to wait until a politician or prominent figure labels an attack before choosing how to categorize it, but with the 2016 election in the U.S., he said he has to be much more cautious when choosing whose definition to use.
“When we see a political leader in the United States like Donald Trump coming out and saying ‘this is terrorism’ right away—as a Canadian, there is a feeling that just because somebody is saying it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true,” Claggett says. “I think, for the first time ever with a political leader, we’re very careful to not necessarily follow what he says. Just because [Trump] calls an attack terrorism doesn’t mean we will call it that way.”
The News1130 staff may continue to be split on future decisions when labelling attacks, but the nuance of each attack requires thoughtful debate. There’s no simple rule that can be applied and followed.