Study of Waterboarding Coverage Prompts a Debate in the Press

A study released this week of the four biggest newspapers in the United States said that in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there was “a dramatic shift in coverage away from nearly a century of practice recognizing waterboarding as torture.”

The study, “Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media”, by students at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy analyzed articles in USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times. It found that “for more than 70 years prior to 9/11, American law and major newspapers consistently classified waterboarding as torture.” But after revelations that the United States had employed the practice of waterboarding in 2004, “media sources appear to have changed their characterization of the practice.”

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, in an e-mail message on Thursday, wrote:

“When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves,” Mr. Keller wrote. “Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture. Nobody reading the Times’s coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word ‘brutal.’)”

Some critics, like Greg Sargent, a blogger for The Washington Post, asserted this week that The Times had indeed taken a side in a political dispute, and in a legal one as well.

“The decision to refrain from calling waterboarding ‘torture’ is tantamount to siding with the Bush administration’s claim that the act it acknowledged doing is not illegal under any statute,” Mr. Sargent wrote Thursday. “No one is saying The Times should have adopted the role of judge and jury and proclaimed the Bush administration officially guilty. Rather, the point is that by dropping use of the word ‘torture,’ it took the Bush position — against those who argued that the act Bush officials sanctioned is already agreed upon as illegal under the law.”.

Asked for comment on Thursday, Cameron W. Barr, the national security editor for The Washington Post, wrote in an e-mail message

 “After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration. But we often cited others describing waterboarding as torture in stories that mentioned the technique,” Mr. Barr wrote. “We gave prominence to stories reporting official determinations that waterboarding or other techniques constituted torture.”

The Harvard study made no claims about the reason for the change in depiction of waterboarding, but concluded that “the current debate cannot be so divorced from its historical roots.”

“The status quo ante was that waterboarding is torture, in American law, international law, and in the newspapers’ own words,” the students wrote. “Had the papers not changed their coverage, it would still have been called torture. By straying from that established norm, the newspapers imply disagreement with it, despite their claims to the contrary. In the context of their decades-long practice, the newspapers’ sudden equivocation on waterboarding can hardly be termed neutral.”

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