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[This post is the first installment of what I hope will become a regular feature. I’ll pick a specific issue that presents journalists with descriptive problems and discuss (ideally with others) the most ethical way for them to articulate it. The idea will be to address usage questions that are too specific or too sensitive for media style guides to address, or for which the style guides offer unsatisfactory prescriptions. I’m going to call it “The Usage Panel,” partly to bolster my hope that in the future there will be more than one panelist, but mostly because I would like for it to be an ethics- and accuracy-focused media analog to the practical usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Suggestions for future Usage Panel topics are welcome!]

During the March upsurge in violence in and around Basra, a lot of the print publications that I see regularly used “Shiite-on-Shiite” as an adjective to describe the fighting and to distinguish it from the violence between Shiite and Sunni factions that has been more characteristic of the civil war in Iraq. It struck me as an appropriate topic for the first Usage Panel because it was so pervasive and raised some questions about how to describe ethnic and religious violence.

The expression recalls “black-on-black,” an adjective that appeared regularly in 1980’s reports of violence in South Africa that was not between black anti-Apartheid and white pro-Apartheid forces. The phrase still appears in U.S. newspapers, but almost always to describe either violence in urban black neighborhoods in the U.S. or discrimination against black Americans perpetrated by black Americans. (The expression “black-on-black violence” is specifically proscribed by the Guardian Style Guide, but not addressed by the NYT or AP stylebooks or by the Chicago Manual of Style).

Like the earlier usage of “black-on-black,” “Shiite-on-Shiite” is used to point out a way in which the violence being described defies the audience’s expectations. In South Africa in the 1980s, we expected violence to be racially motivated, and in Iraq now we expect violence that does not involve foreign forces to be between Shiite and Sunni groups.

I think that my primary hesitation about both expressions is that they present an uncomplicated understanding of the state of being “Shiite” or “black.” To use “Shiite-on-Shiite” as the primary descriptor of a violent incident suggests that it is, above other notable features of the incident, surprising that someone who identifies as Shiite would hurt someone else who identifies as Shiite. There’s a suggestion of “unnatural,” almost incestuous, betrayal in the construction. “Shiite-on-Shiite” and “black-on-black” encourage an inaccurate lumping of many, many individuals, political parties, ethnic groups, organizations and motivations into monolithic groups.

I fully accept that it was important—perhaps of primary importance—in all of the stories where I noticed the usage to explain that the violence occurring was between opposing Shiite groups. But the expression “Shiite-on-Shiite violence” evokes a simplistic understanding of “Shiiteness” that seems even less nuanced than “violence between opposing Shiite factions” or a similar description.

I’m sure that some of my discomfort with these phrases derives from their employment of “black” and “Shiite” as nouns rather than as the adjectives I think they should be. I have never liked the usage “10 blacks” or “three Shiites” or “a group of Christians,” (as opposed to “black people,” etc.) because it reduces people to one classifying adjective instead of using the adjective to indicate one salient element of peoples’ humanity.

But there is also something unique to the construction “x-on-x” that estranges the audience from the “x”-es. The fact that the expression evokes a colloquial and objectifying description of sexual activities might be relevant. I think it’s significant that such adjectival phrases are often used to describe pornographic representations of sex.

Of course all media descriptions—and certainly all one-phrase adjectives—inevitably reduce and simplify realities. But describing the violence in Basra as “Shiite-on-Shiite” inaccurately and unnecessarily endowed the violence, and its perpetrators and victims, with a nonexistent simplicity.

Or that’s what I think right now. Thoughts?


Something I’ve been interested in for a long time is the way war reports describe the deaths that happen in war. War deaths are mentioned in some capacity in almost every day’s newspaper and television newscast and I would argue that the way reporters describe those deaths significantly impacts the way we think about the war being described.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry points to how peripheral death, injury, and the destruction of homes can seem in published accounts of war: “one can read many pages of a historic or strategic account of a particular military campaign, or listen to many successive installments in a newscast narrative of events in a contemporary war, without encountering the acknowledgment that the purpose of the event described is to alter (to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut) human tissue, as well as to alter the surface, shape, and deep entirety of the objects that human beings recognize as extensions of themselves.”

I find that even when death is mentioned—even when it is central to a news story about, for example, the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—it is described in ways that obscure its terrible physical realities. (And I just want to mention that I don’t believe that journalists set out to obscure this reality, and I recognize that there are dozens of legitimate reasons for writing brief, succinct accounts of this particular kind of violence. What interests me, though—and what I think is more relevant to the ethical value of the story—is the effect of these descriptions on the reader’s understanding of events.)

In “Is Nothing Sacred? The Ethics of Television,” (I keep mentioning this essay, but only because it’s great), Michael Ignatieff, speaking of television, says that “in a culture overwhelmed by the volume of promiscuous representation, there must be some practice by which the real—the instant when a real body is struck, abused, or violated—is given a place of special attention, a demarcation that insists that it be seen.

Of course, the “instant when a real body is struck, abused, or violated” would be unbearable to a reader if language could perfectly communicate its physical violence and “make real” its terror. No representation could. But physically graphic language, like graphic television images, can force us to experience—in some real but infinitely and necessarily circumscribed way—the physical horror of war.

I collected all the discussions of Iraq war deaths that I could find from New York Times stories (including Reuters and AP stories that appeared on the New York Times website) dated April 10th. I found eight articles that referred to injury and several articles, like this one, that discussed war strategy but didn’t mention injury. The descriptions of death tended to use stereotyped language like “The U.S. military says an American soldier has been killed by a roadside bomb in central Baghdad.” and “U.S. air strikes killed 10 people in a Baghdad slum where dozens of people died in clashes this week,” phrases that communicate the fact of death but don’t evoke its physical reality.

One article that listed soldiers who had died recently twice referred to soldiers dying of wounds sustained during a particular event: “Army Staff Sgt. Jeffery L. Hartley, 25, Hempstead, Texas; died Tuesday in Kharguliah, Iraq, of wounds suffered when his vehicle struck an explosive” and “Army Sgt. Shaun P. Tousha, 30, Hull, Texas; died Wednesday in Baghdad of wounds when his vehicle struck an explosive.” This description was the only one I could find that mentioned any physical aspect of deadly injuries (wounds).

Here are links to the articles that mentioned death or injury in Iraq:

Roadside Bomb Kills US Soldier in Iraq

Family Honors Son’s Memory With Iraq Aid

Bush to Halt Iraq Troop Cuts

U.S. Military Deaths in Iraq at 4,030

A Dozen Iraqis Die in Continuing Fighting in Sadr City, and Bombs Kill Three Americans

Colonel is 9th of Rank to Die in Iraq

Bush Suspends Summer Troop Pullouts in Iraq

Letters: The Iraq Hearings, and the Skeptics

I don’t really mean for my title to disparage the kind of media ethics taught in journalism school—I would never argue that fair comment, the treatment of sources, and privacy aren’t important issues for journalists to spend time thinking about and wrestling with. But the ways in which news stories affect audience perceptions of social and political questions seem to get short shrift in the conversation about media ethics. News media often provide audiences with initial constructions of remote events, so that our engagement with events is likely to be shaped in part by the way journalists communicate their reality.

My idea for this blog is to explore the relationship between journalistic construction of events and audiences’ moral understanding of those events. How we respond to social and political events depends on how we understand them—how we interpret their significance and whether we feel a responsibility or connection to them.

I would like to look especially (though not exclusively) at news consumers’ engagement with events that cause human suffering, which I consider an especially important and problematic element of the reader-news relationship. It’s an element that commentators and theorists have done a good job of defining, usually while lamenting the failures of news media actors to effectively produce such engagement. In his essay “Is Nothing Sacred? The Ethics of Television,” Michael Ignatieff describes how the deadlines that characterize all mainstream news media formats raise obstacles to the responsible communication of human tragedy: “The time disciplines of the news genre militate against the minimum moral requirement of engagement with another person’s suffering: that one spends enough time with them, enough time to pierce the carapace of self-absorption and estrangement that separates us from the moral worlds of others.” In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag addresses the limitations of photographic language in communicating news: “To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

I think that examining the building blocks of news stories is a good way to get at the social and political ideas they convey. My particular interest is in the way that word use and syntax creates moral meaning, but I’m glad that I picked an ambiguous tagline— “a conversation about the language of the news”—because I want to reserve the right to discuss the visual and aural languages of news media as well.

And I really do hope that it becomes a conversation. I’m excited for the “comment” feature to become an integral part of this blog.