Public Editor

‘Terrorist,’ ‘protester,’ ‘militia member’ — or something else entirely?

Terms such as “terrorist” can divide readers.
Terms such as “terrorist” can divide readers.

Writing about the news is altogether different from fiction or poetry. But it’s still writing, and word choice poses a unique set of challenges for journalists.

The Kansas City Star’s readers often alert me to terms and phrases that they think reveal bias or commentary. And on the other hand, some correspondents want to see loaded language deployed very purposefully.

In recent years, many readers have criticized The Star’s usage of the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist.” They think it is applied to some situations inappropriately, while in other contexts they ask why it isn’t the default term.

I doubt many people would balk at calling the attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., or Paris, France at the end of 2015 terrorism. The assailants’ motives have become clear, and they match the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition: “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.”

What about the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, though? While most reporting on the standoff has come from the wire services, The Star always has the ability to edit that text.

Various news items have referred to the men holding the government building as “armed protesters” and “militia,” while others have called them most neutrally “people” or “men.”

Some readers want The Star to call them terrorists as well. One suggested that the Opinion section run a commentary from Pulitzer-winning commentator Eugene Robinson, who criticizes “the semi-legitimizing term ‘militia,’” and asks what people would think if the occupiers were black, Mexican-American or Muslim.

“Militia” is a word that is especially slippery in today’s language. The Merriam-Webster dictionary’s simple definition is, “a group of people who are not part of the armed forces of a country but are trained like soldiers.”

But it also goes on in the full definition to say it’s “a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency,” or “a body of citizens organized for military service.”

Does any of these really apply to the men in Oregon? We don’t know what kind of training they may have gotten, but they’re certainly not part of the “organized armed forces” of the U.S.

American English of today is considerably different from that spoken in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was adopted. Linguists and historians continue to debate the grammar and meaning of its text — and we’re certainly not going to settle it here.

Some people react positively to the term, while others recoil. A recent Q&A in the Associated Press Stylebook’s “Ask the Editor” offers this solid advice: “We’re avoiding ‘militia’ and ‘militiamen’ unless quoting the armed men directly because those terms have several meanings.”

On the other side of the issue, another emailer took issue with a Jan. 7 story by a Star staffer that referred to the men as “armed anti-government extremists.”

“I object to their being characterized as ‘extremists,’” he wrote. “They are ‘protesters.’”

One person’s protester may be another’s rioter. Some may see an activist where another looks at an agitator.

Sometimes, the culprit in these cases where readers perceive bias is simply the pursuit of readable prose. Prosaic can become dry in writing, and journalists want their stories to be approachable.

But few words are truly synonyms. Especially when it comes to labeling people in a news story, plain is often preferable to variety.