Column: Choosing the right words an important responsibility

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 6, 2002

What’s in a name? After all, as the famous line goes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Saturday, April 06, 2002

What’s in a name? After all, as the famous line goes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And, in a more modern-day spin, a terrorist by any other name is still a terrorist – and everybody knows it.

Email newsletter signup

Last week, we were confronted by the suddenly controversial issue of what we should call a person who duct-tapes a bomb to his torso and blows himself up. The state’s largest newspaper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, decided it won’t use the word &uot;terrorist&uot; to describe the Palestinian holy warriors who have been strutting into busy restaurants and hotels and detonating themselves.

The paper takes &uot;extra care to avoid the term ‘terrorist’ in articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of the emotional and heated nature of that dispute,&uot; according to the paper’s ombudsman.

Is this another example of political correctness run rampant? In a way, yes. While busy striving never to offend anyone – even the kind of person who would defend a suicide bombing – policies like these continue to strip our language of meaning. We end up with a vocabulary full of meaningless euphemisms that seem to sterilize the subject matter we’re talking about.

Comedian George Carlin has a routine about this. He laments that sometime during his life, &uot;toilet paper&uot; became &uot;bathroom tissue,&uot; &uot;the dump&uot; became &uot;the landfill,&uot; and so on. He’s poking fun, but as Carlin usually does, he has a point: Why can’t we just call things what they are? Why do we have to pretty it up? It’s because we don’t want to think about what something really is.

When it comes to the Star Tribune’s policy, many people are not pleased. A group calling itself &uot;Minnesotans Against Terrorism&uot; (as opposed to Minnesotans for Terrorism?) took out a full-page ad in the Strib protesting the policy. Many of the offended people are Jewish, who are no strangers themselves to the &uot;emotional and heated nature of the dispute.&uot; They want the Star Tribune to use the word &uot;terrorist&uot; to describe somebody who blows up civilians.

But the Star Tribune’s saving grace, in this case anyway, is this: It’s not like it is calling the bombers something neutral, or something that glorifies their tactics. It’s scrapping &uot;terrorist&uot; in favor of words that are actually more descriptive, like &uot;suicide bomber&uot; or &uot;gunman.&uot; They aren’t glazing over what is being done; in fact, the image that comes to mind when you read the phrase &uot;suicide bomber&uot; is just as appalling as with the word &uot;terrorist.&uot; You can roll your eyes at the paper’s attempt to be politically correct, but you must admit the difference between the nouns is negligible.

The Star Tribune, however, has a history of other policies that take a similar approach to controversial terminology.

I was reading some baseball coverage last year that involved the Cleveland Indians. At some point, I noticed that nowhere – headlines, stories, photo captions – was the word &uot;Indians&uot; used. Just a fluke? No. I paid attention from then on, and never saw a reference to the &uot;Indians.&uot; They were just referred to as &uot;Cleveland.&uot;

I see this case a little differently. The paper clearly has a problem with Indian sports nicknames, judging that they are offensive to Native Americans. But this time, they’re not just choosing among nouns in the thesaurus. They’re actually omitting the proper name of an organization. Whether they like it or not, the team is called the Indians, and ignoring that is not telling the entire story.

If I decided I was going to advocate prohibition of alcohol, would it be right for me as a newspaper editor to refuse to print the names of ballparks named after brewing companies, like Miller Park in Milwaukee and Busch Stadium in St. Louis? Imagine if the Tribune’s sports page edited out references to these parks and replaced them with something like &uot;the stadium in St. Louis.&uot; Omitting the name keeps facts away from readers, and I consider it our job as a newspaper to bring you facts, not keep them from you. It also editorializes by inserting an editor’s opinion into what should be an impartial news account.

You can call a terrorist a &uot;gunman&uot; or a &uot;bomber&uot; and the point still gets across. &uot;Terrorist&uot; is not the officially accepted name for anything; it’s just a word that we have grown fond of to describe a certain kind of person. But when you start changing or ignoring proper names because you don’t like them, you have crossed the line.

It’s an important distinction to make, because in the fight to preserve the accuracy and meaning of news, we can’t afford accidental casualties.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor.