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WHAT'S THE WORD

How news organizations are handling the word “torture” in their CIA torture stories

In this photo, reviewed by a U.S. Department of Defense official, a Guantanamo detainee's feet are shackled to the floor as he attends a "Life Skills" class inside the Camp 6 high-security detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base April 27, 2010. REUTERS/Michelle Shephard/Pool (CUBA - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR2D788
Reuters/Michelle Shephard
Were prisoners tortured? And if so, why call it otherwise?
By Zach Wener-Fligner

2014-15 Fellow. Quartz Things team.

This article is more than 2 years old.

This article has been corrected.

Torture is a term that should not be used lightly. It is a crime under international law and illegal in the United States. Journalists know this. In August, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet penned an editorial in which he wrote that The Times would use “torture” to describe incidents where “interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”

Yesterday, after the release of the Senate report on CIA interrogation practices of terror suspects after September 11—practices which included “rectal feeding,” physical abuse such as slamming detainees against walls, and “near drownings”—many news organizations faced the dilemma of what to call the acts.

Some settled on the word “torture.” Others demurred.

Below is a list of the news organizations that did or did not label the CIA interrogation techniques “torture” in the headlines of their biggest stories on the subject.

This list doesn’t include articles in the opinion section or headlines that used “torture” in quotation marks. For some outlets, it was obvious which story led their coverage, such as The Washington Post’s “Senate report on CIA program details brutality, dishonesty.”  For others, it was less clear, so we used our best judgment.

Outlets varied considerably in the degree to which they sidestepped using the word. The Post and NPR, for example, very deliberately do not take a position on whether or not they consider the practice to be torture, but did quote other people calling it that. In contrast, the BBC, which did not include “torture” in its headline, refers in its story to “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, or torture by any other name.” Many of the outlets used the word “torture” in secondary stories.

Media outletSample headlineDoes it use “torture”?
The New York TimesThe Senate Report on the CIA’s Torture and Liesyes
The GuardianSenate report on CIA torture claims spy agency lied about ‘ineffective’ programyes
CNNSenate report: CIA misled public on tortureyes
Fox NewsCIA, Senate contrast claims of effectiveness of torture of al-Qaida detaineesyes
ReutersCIA tortured, misled, US report finds, drawing calls for actionyes
BuzzfeedSenate Democrats Release Scathing CIA Torture Reportyes
The EconomistAmerican Intelligence and Tortureyes
The New YorkerTaking Responsibility for Tortureyes
The AtlanticCIA Torture: ‘A Stain on Our Values and History’yes
VoxHow the CIA misled the public on its torture program, in one chartyes
WSJSenate Report Calls CIA Interrogation Tactics Ineffectiveno
Washington PostSenate report on CIA program details brutality, dishonestyno
BBCReport on CIA details ‘brutal’ post-9/11 interrogationsno
NPRReport Says CIA Misled Congress, White House On Interrogation Programno
BloombergCIA Misled Bush, Congress on Interrogation Tactics, Report Findsno
CBSSenate report: CIA misled lawmakers, public on enhanced interrogationno

Correction: An earlier version of this article was incorrectly headlined, Here are the news organizations that don’t call torture “torture.” It and the story text have been changed to reflect the fact that some of the news organizations mentioned do use the word ‘torture,’ albeit in varying ways.

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