December 5, 2006

"Sectarian Violence" Makes a Comeback

civil war and Iraq sectarian violence and Iraq insurgency and Iraq withdrawal and Iraq
Nov 30 – Dec 4 2830 3310 1400 3420

Since NBC announced on Nov. 27 that the network would begin referring to the conflict in Iraq as a “civil war,” the press has been engaged in a semantic debate over what to call the conflict. Some media organizations voiced criticism that NBC’s pronouncement was overtly political and premature. Others backed NBC, saying the deteriorating situation on the ground warranted the term’s use. Some news outlets, such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, said they had already been using the phrase “civil war” – albeit with considerably less fanfare than NBC.

Despite the intensified media discussion, it doesn’t appear that the press as an institution has made up its collective mind over what to call the conflict in Iraq. A search of terms on Google News finds that from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 the phrase “sectarian violence” and “Iraq” appeared in 3,310 stories. That’s more frequent than the terms “civil war” and “Iraq,” which appeared in 2,830 stories during that period. Meanwhile, “Insurgency” and “Iraq” were together in 1,400 pieces.

Those numbers represent something of a reversal from what PEJ found a week earlier, when “civil war” was the dominant term, clearly outstripping “sectarian violence” and “insurgency” in usage.

Why the change? One reason may be that many of the stories earlier last week concerned the subject of whether to use the term “civil war.” What does seem certain is that newsrooms have not taken the characterization of the fighting in Iraq lightly. In many cases, news executives are still grappling with formulating a policy on the issue or have made nuanced decisions that include a selective use of a term with some political ramifications.

Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald, told his staff in a memo last week that “we will use the term ‘civil war’ selectively and only after paying careful attention to the accepted definition” of the term. New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said his paper will use the phrase “sparingly and carefully” in the hopes that the phrase doesn’t become “reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated.”

Meanwhile, Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, told Editor & Publisher magazine that his reporters “just describe what goes on everyday” and added that the paper did not have a “policy about it.”

What does this mean about the future of Iraq coverage and nomenclature? They, like the situation in Iraq, are in a state of flux. Conditions on the ground in Iraq as well as the political debate in Washington—certain to change with Democrats controlling Congress—are both likely to influence the words journalists use in describing the situation there. As one example, “sectarian violence” and “civil war” combined with the word “Iraq” both generated a lot of hits in PEJ’s Google News searches from Nov. 30 through Dec. 4. But the words “withdrawal” and “Iraq” showed up in 3,420 stories — more frequently than either of the other terms.