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When does Reuters use the word terrorist or terrorism?

By Sean Maguire
June 13, 2007

Sean Maguire

We are often asked what our policy is on using these terms. One recent example came in a comment on the Editor-in-Chief’s blog. How we describe acts of violence and those who perpetrate them is deeply sensitive. Readers feel very strongly but very differently about how certain groups or individuals should be identified. It is a subject on which global media organisations like our own tread carefully.

The best explanation of our policy is the guidance we give to our journalists in the Reuters handbook. All Reuters reporters, whatever their nationality, personal beliefs or politics, abide by these guidelines.

Here they are:

Terrorism We may refer without attribution to terrorism and counter-terrorism in general but do not refer to specific events as terrorism. Nor do we use the word terrorist without attribution to qualify specific individuals, groups or events. Terrorism and terrorist must be retained when quoting someone in direct speech. When quoting someone in indirect speech, care must be taken with sentence structure to ensure it is entirely clear that they are the sources words and not a Reuters label. Terrorism and terrorist should not be used as single words in inverted commas (e.g. terrorist) or preceded by so-called (e.g. a so-called terrorist attack) since that can be taken to imply that Reuters is making a value judgment. Use a fuller quote if necessary. Terror as in terror attack or terror cell should be avoided on stylistic grounds.

This is part of a wider and long-standing policy of avoiding the use of emotive terms. Reuters does not label or characterise the subjects of news stories. We aim to report objectively their actions, identity and background. We aim for a dispassionate use of language so that individuals, organisations and governments can make their own judgment on the basis of facts. Seek to use more specific terms like “bomber”, or “bombing”, hijacker or hijacking, “attacker” or “attacks”, “gunman” or “gunmen” etc. It is particularly important not to make unattributed use of the words terrorism and terrorist in national and territorial conflicts and to avoid using those terms in indirect speech in such a context.

Sean Maguire is acting Editor, Politics and General News


I have read your policy statement on terrorism. I do not agree.
Sooner or later you will need to make a stand on something. To be so politically correct all the time is wrong. Tell the truth about something, do not beat around the bush. Be fair and balanced in your reporting, but be firm on your convictions. If they are terrorists, then call them terrorists.

Posted by Paul Butler | Report as abusive

This is a very wise policy. If only other news organisations would adopt it as well. The point should be to report the facts. As anyone who has followed the wars of the past 30 years or so should know, the word ‘terrorist’ is all too often used for largely political purposes. Perhaps ‘terrorism’ should be understood as an ideology. If so, then using the word almost always has ideological implications. This has nothing to do with political correctness, but rather with correctness.

Posted by Onno Oerlemans | Report as abusive

Terrorism is so frequently used in politics precisely due to the emotive impact and vague significance. Another confusing word is “Democracy” (and variants). Does Reuters use similar guidelines with other emotive and vague terms?

Posted by Dastarblazer | Report as abusive

Despite the fact that different academic and theoretical disciplines have more or less established methods to study acts of terrorism, in modern times, what is professionally refered to “terrorism” is essentially a type of “political violence,” or violence conducted to statisfy political motivations. In turn, then, “terrorism” is essentially expresses a term with roots to study of Political Science.

Therefore, for Political Scientists like myself, it is especially important to distinguish between political violence and other forms of violence (such as more ‘ordinary’ crimes like fraud, murder, etc).

In studying terrorism, Political Scientists have realized that signficant ambiguity exists as to what exactly constitutes “terrorism” at any given point of time or environment. This is not a deliberate result of political science, but reflects a response to the international environment. Since, terrorism (and actors) are politically motivated, there has been no strong international consensus on a specific statement defining this phenomenon, whether among governments/nation-states or non-governemental actors. In the search for an objective study of terrorism, Political Scientists themselves have struggled to create a set of descriptions for terrorism that takes into the reality that nation-states will act on behalf of their own interests, while attempting to avoid making value judgments over the national interests of nation-states. How nation-states define terrorism is as a much a product of their adherence to their own national interests at a given time as other factors, and so Political Scientists try to avoid getting caught in the subjectivity net national interests create. I would expect a similar process of analyzing terrorism to occur any respectable news agency with strong journalistically professional credentials/reputation.

There are, however, some basic general characteristics that Political Scientists have identified for terrorism. These basic guidelines help not only to distinguish between political violence and other forms of violence, but also to distinguish between terrorism and other forms of political violence (such as riots, coups, and to some extent guerrilla warfare). If my memory serves me well, the general characteristics of terrorism violence are:

(1). the act of violence must be politically motivated (eg’s destablize a government, eliminate a government’s monopoly over the use of violence, or to extract concessions from a government);

(2) the act of violence must be performed for an audience/media–hence the increasing dramatism and intensity of terrorist acts over time;

(3) the act of violence must be at least intended to provoke wide-spread fear, confusion, disorientation among the population—hence the increasing dramatism and intensity of terrorist acts over time;

(4)the act of violence must be a deliberate effort to target innocent civilians (“non-combatants”) in addition to non-civilian targets, either through actual direct attack on non-combatants or indirectly through fear (see #3).

Government structures do not necessarily have to be included in the mix of targets in a given attack or plan of attack, as recent trends involving greater frequencies of non-government (i.e. civilian & non-combatant) targets have emerged. The main point here is satisfying the intention to target civilian/non-combatants either directly or indirectly as mentioned above. But attacks against government structures that intended to provoke concerns about security and public safety could also potentially be considered as a terrorism if a political motivation to it is attached/associated.

Terrorist acts can be:

a) conducted by governments,

b) sponsored (but not directly or even indirectly conducted by) nation-states/governments,

c) can be conducted by non-state private actors, whether they operate internationally, regionally, or within a country.

As you can see, defining “terrorism” can entail an enormously complex set of tasks and analyses. While treading this complexity carefully can lead to charges of “not being resolute,” moving away from a careful and thoughtful approach to analysis and reporting can lead to serious inaccuracies. It is important that one remains resolute in opposing terrorism. It is equally and sigificantly important that a high level of objectivity and accuracy be maintained during identification and analysis as well. Fall, this balance is very tricky and much easier said than done.


You wont call a terrorist by its name.
On the other hand you call dictators like Fidel Castro a “President” leading to the falseness of him being democraticaly elected official….

What gives ?

Posted by Carlos Pulido | Report as abusive

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