These pirates shouldn’t be punchlines

April 15, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

Kidnapping isn’t funny.

Neither are extortion, hijacking or murder threats.

So why have some in the media been laughing—or at least winking—at people who have been doing precisely that—the criminals who have been hijacking ships and crews off the Horn of Africa and holding them for ransom?

I think it has something to do with what we’ve chosen to call them: pirates.

Perhaps we in the media have all seen too many cartoonish films with Johnny Depp portraying the charming and engaging Jack Sparrow. Or maybe we remember an earlier era when Errol Flynn played a charming and engaging Geoffrey Thorpe who fights for commerce and his country (England) and the affections of a Spanish princess.

Maybe we need a break from the mostly grim coverage of the financial crisis and evaporating savings, continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a tide of gun violence and unrest around the world.

The day after the crew of the Maersk Alabama kept control of their ship after the attack by pirates who later held Capt. Richard Phillips, the front-page headline in the New York Post was: “Yo, Ho, D’oh.”

A Google News search over the past month shows 414 stories with references to “ahoy,” 150 to “avast,” 76 to “walk the plank,” 61 to “Davy Jones,” and 165 to varying spellings of “arrgh.”

The White House press corps was not immune. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote (sprinkling his piece with references to Davy Jones, walking the plank and scallywags), “ …the discussion of an American shipping captain’s successful rescue from pirates over the weekend brought the rare sensation of adventure on the high seas to the White House briefing room yesterday—and everybody seemed to enjoy the diversion.”

Maybe we do need the diversion, but this is deadly serious business and I wonder if we’re calling the Somali “pirates” something they aren’t.

At the risk of being accused of splitting hairs (oh, let’s split hairs!), dictionary definitions of “pirate” and “piracy” traditionally have much more to do with theft than kidnapping.

According to Merriam Webster online, “piracy” is defined as “1: an act of robbery on the high seas; also: an act resembling such robbery 2: robbery on the high seas 3a: the unauthorized use of another’s production, invention, or conception especially in infringement of a copyright b: the illicit accessing of broadcast signals.”

Putting aside the third definition (that’s another column), it seems that what the Somali “pirates” are doing is closer to extortion and kidnapping than robbery. They don’t want the grain in the holds of the Maersk Alabama and other famine relief ships headed to Kenya or even the vehicles on the decks of other seized ships. They don’t even want the ships. They want to exchange the ships and their cargoes for a ransom that is a very small percentage of what they are actually worth.

I know this isn’t the Council of Trent and I don’t hold out much hope of persuading my colleagues to call the “pirates” something else, like “kidnappers” or “extortionists” or “hijackers.” But I think we could turn down the “shiver me timbers” index considerably.

There are signs that the coverage of the kidnappings off the Horn of Africa are changing the ways some people think about “pirates.”

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Amy Hekman, a childhood literacy coach, told the Grand Rapids Press that when she’s talking to her children about the incidents, “I’ve been conscious not to use the word ‘pirate.’ I tell them a ship was captured.”

And 10-year-old Jacob Peterson told the paper that he’s not sure he’ll want to reprise his pirate costume for Halloween, because, he said, the Somali “pirates” “seem mean.”

Thank you, Jacob.

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