Why news outlets are avoiding 'terrorist' labels in Israel-Hamas war

Protesters clash with Lebanese security forces on Oct. 18, 2023, outside the US Embassy during a demonstration in solidarity with the people of Gaza in Awkar, East of Beirut, after a strike on a hospital in the Gaza Strip. [VOA]

Who is and is not a terrorist, who decides, and why does it matter?

These questions have been at the center of media coverage of the Israel-Hamas war this past month.

Audience frustrations over how media use — or avoid using — the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" underscore broader frustrations with news coverage of the conflict in general. At times, that anger has manifested in journalists being accosted for their perceived biases and sympathies toward one side of the war or the other.

It's a phenomenon that analysts say highlights the exceptionally deep divisions that characterize this conflict — as well as the media's capacity to inadvertently deepen those divisions.

When militant attacks become terrorist plots

After the militant group Hamas invaded southern Israel on October 7, killing over 1,400 people and taking over 200 people hostage, Israel responded by declaring war and launching a nonstop bombardment campaign on Gaza, killing more than 9,700 people, including over 4,000 children.

It's the latest iteration of a decades-long conflict. Since the 1990s, The Associated Press has advised against the use of the words "terrorist" and "terrorism," other than in direct quotations or when attributed to authorities, according to John Daniszewski, the AP's vice president for standards.

Following October 7, Daniszewski said there were internal deliberations over whether to make an exception to that rule, but the AP ultimately decided to continue advising against the use of those terms because the words "have become politicized, and often are applied inconsistently," according to the AP Stylebook.

"This particular word is so vague and so loaded that different people will disagree about who is a terrorist and who is not," Daniszewski told VOA.

VOA does describe the October 7 raid as a terrorist attack, but it follows the AP's guidance on avoiding calling Hamas and its members terrorists.

Human rights groups condemn the Hamas attack as a probable crime against humanity, and also condemn the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, which has resulted in strikes at refugee camps, hospitals and schools. Israel denies it is targeting civilians, saying it is going after Hamas targets.

Terrorism is not defined under international law. But debates over the word "terrorist" have proliferated because, like the word "genocide," it carries a heavy political and emotional weight, according to Maxim Pensky, who leads the Institute of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention at Binghamton University in New York. The word has "so much narrative force and depth," he told VOA.

"Terrorist" has effectively become a shorthand to denounce Israeli soldiers and Hamas militants, according to Susan Benesch, executive director of the Dangerous Speech Project. When the word "terrorist" is used, no other explanation is really needed.

"In this context, 'terrorist' is a slur. It's a way of saying that somebody just wants to kill you," Benesch told VOA.

Although some people have criticized the media's caution, Palestinian political analyst Nour Odeh thinks using those words only risks deepening divisions.

"There is no need to adopt that classification, because ultimately, it's a subjective classification," she told VOA from Ramallah. "It emotionally loads the news, and it makes it easier for people to align themselves with good guys versus bad guys, instead of digesting the information and figuring it out for themselves."

"If you imply that they're all terrorists, or that they are sympathizers with terrorists, then you immediately make it easier for the audience to not have any empathy with what's happening," added Odeh, a former West Bank correspondent for Al Jazeera.

When coverage clashes with personal experiences

Acknowledging someone else's pain during conflict can be difficult, according to Rachel Brown, executive director of Over Zero, an organization that focuses on the intersection of communication and violence.

"Something that happens during conflict is it's really hard for people to recognize someone else's grief until theirs has been recognized first, and it feels really threatening to have somebody else not recognize their pain," Brown told VOA.

The media play an influential role in curating narratives about conflict, Benesch said, but people can become angry when those narratives appear to clash with their personal experiences.

"As is happening now, people get used to one version of reality online, through social media, from their friends and family. And then if what they see on the news is not in keeping with that, then they're furious," Benesch said. Frustrations over the "terrorist" question is one example of that process, the former journalist added.

"That's the appeal of the echo chamber," Odeh said, describing an environment where a person encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own.

While avoiding the "terrorist" label is in the best interest of good news coverage of the conflict, according to Odeh, there are other media bias issues that more news outlets should be concerned about.

Odeh said many news outlets take the Israeli government's statements at face value and prioritize the Israeli perspective over the Palestinian perspective.

One 2019 study analyzed 50 years of news headlines on the Israel-Palestine conflict and found that U.S. newspapers are more than twice as likely to cite Israeli sources than Palestinian ones.

Another example is qualifying Gaza's Health Ministry as "Hamas-run" when citing the Palestinian death toll, Odeh said.

Last month, President Joe Biden said he had "no confidence" in the ministry's death toll estimates. In previous wars, however, the Gaza Health Ministry's data have later been validated by U.N. reports, independent reports, and even Israeli investigations.

Although small and technically accurate, adding "Hamas-run" risks casting doubt over data that has historically been credible, Oden said. "It helps kill empathy," she said.

Concerns over bias underscore the negative role that the media can play during such crises, experts say.

"The media can play a major role in fostering and deepening societal divisions in such ways that can pave the way towards horrific atrocity crimes," said Savita Pawnday, executive director of the atrocity prevention group known as the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

Media coverage of these crises can also have implications for how governments respond, according to Brown. "Words and narratives really matter because they shape the framework that we're making decisions in and they shape the framework for what we think our possibilities are," she said.