November 30, 2006

Are the Media Opting for “Civil War?”

civil war and Iraq sectarian violence and Iraq insurgency and Iraq
Nov. 16 thru 23 4380 4310 3910
Nov. 23 thru 30 8040 6680 3040

NBC’s Nov. 27 announcement that it would begin referring to the conflict in Iraq as a “civil war” added more fuel to a debate within the news media about the semantics of the coverage. Is the violence in Iraq an “insurgency” against occupying forces? Is the fighting, now largely between Iraqis, best described as “sectarian violence?” Or is the more ominous phrase “civil war”—which suggests more large-scale fighting and which the Bush administration has refrained from using—more appropriate?

NBC has not been alone in choosing the new nomenclature. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times are also writing that term into their stories. On Nov. 29, former Secretary of State Colin Powell used the words “civil war” to describe the violence in Iraq in a speech in Dubai. And according to a search of Google News, the phrase is finding its way into more and more coverage of the carnage in Iraq.

The search found that the number of stories containing the words “Iraq” and “civil war” began climbing after a series of car bombings in Baghdad on Nov. 22 that claimed the lives of more than 200 Iraqis. Reprisals followed. And in one week, it seems, “civil war” went from being one of a few ways to describe the violence in Iraq to a dominant option.

Searching between Nov. 23 and Nov. 30, the phrase “civil war” and “Iraq” appeared in the 8,040 stories. That is compared to “sectarian violence” and “Iraq” which showed up in 6,680 stories and “insurgency” and “Iraq” which appeared in 3,040 pieces.

The week before, Nov. 16 to Nov. 23, the usage was more balanced. “Civil war” and “Iraq” turned up in 4,380 stories. “Sectarian violence” and “Iraq” was right behind at 4,310 stories. And “insurgency” and “Iraq” were in the same story 3,910 times.

The decreasing use of the word “insurgency” may reflect the sense that the violence in Iraq is now more of a fight between Iraqis than a fight between Iraqis and U.S. troops. The growing use of the term “civil war” may reflect a media perception that the scale of the bloodshed has widened.