Are the Houthis in Yemen “Iran-backed” or “Iran-aligned”? Are Hezbollah members “terrorists” or “liberators”? Labels can make a big difference.
Hezbollah supporters wear headbands with pictures of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Khomeini near Beirut, Lebanon, 6 February 2019 (EPA-EFE/Nabil Mounzer)
Beware of shorthand. Not the pencilled scribble whose utility is declining in an era of recording and transcription apps, but rather those pithy qualifiers that journalists rely on to summarise complex concepts.
Take the example of Yemen’s Houthis. Or as they are routinely referred to in the international media, Yemen’s “Iranian-backed” Houthis.
As crisp, journalistic descriptors go, “Iranian-backed” at least has the virtue of being loosely accurate. Public statements from Tehran clearly indicate that Iran favours one side in a civil war that broke out five years ago.
News-Decoder contributor Alistair Lyon used the phrase ironically in a recent column that referred to a conflict that “has pitted Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels against an internationally recognised government supported by a Saudi-led Sunni coalition.”
He skewered that sentence of journalistic shorthand by describing it as “a misleadingly simple nutshell.” The divisions in Yemen, he went on to explain, are much more long-standing and complex than that.
Labels can contribute to a binary view of complex situations.
Given pressures of space and time, journalists frequently reach for ready-made phrases to encapsulate the essence of the events they cover. Lyon says he believes the process is almost inevitable, although it is worth striving for nuance. Journalistic shortcuts, he cautions, can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Shorthand labels can contribute to a binary view of complex situations. They can reinforce the received wisdom of politicians and other players and justify public support for their actions.
Responsible news organisations are aware of the trap. To stick with the Yemen example, Germany’s Deutsche Welle wrote in a recent background piece that “frequent references to the [Houthi] group by Saudi Arabia and its allies as a mere Iranian proxy do not tell the whole story.”
As Saudi Arabia’s Western backers have become increasingly disillusioned about its tactics in the stalemated war against the Houthis, the tone of much coverage of the conflict has subtly shifted. The shorthand description of the coalition is now more likely to be “Saudi-led” than “Western-backed.” Leading news providers, including Reuters and the Financial Times, now refer to the “Iran-aligned Houthi movement” rather than “Iran-backed Houthi rebels.”
Major news organisations will often impose a house style on their staff and contributors to reflect their obligation to balance and neutrality, what might be described as “authorised shorthand.”
Is it the “occupied” West Bank or the “disputed” West Bank?
How, for instance, to encapsulate the essence of Lebanon’s Hezbollah? Is it a “terrorist” movement, a “militant” movement, a political party, or even a “liberation” movement, as some regional media choose to describe it?
Mainstream news organisations generally avoid the emotive “terrorist” label and opt for “militant” or similar. Their editors can be heard saying, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” But some politicians then react by demanding to know why the media persists in referring to a spade as a shovel.
Sometimes journalists just have to spell it out. Any Associated Press article referring to Hezbollah will invariably include the paragraph:
“The group is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, some Gulf Arab countries and few Latin American nations, while the European Union considers only Hezbollah’s military wing of the group to be a terrorist group.”
It’s wordy, but at least it has the virtue of providing context that is lost in any of the available shorthand descriptions.
Even the most seemingly innocuous descriptors can carry considerable hidden political weight. Word choice matters. Is it the “occupied” West Bank or the “disputed” West Bank?
It is a question that can generate considerable soul-searching, particularly in the U.S. media.
The United Nations designates the territory as “occupied,” while Israel prefers the ostensibly more neutral “dispute,” arguing that its presence there does not constitute an occupation.
Be alert for easy shorthand phrases.
When journalists and media organisations opt for one or other of these shorthand descriptions, they are essentially taking sides on an issue that has defied a diplomatic resolution for more than 50 years.
A useful rule of thumb for readers and other media consumers is always to be alert for easy shorthand phrases that might disguise or even distort complex events and situations.
Traditional print media has always been constrained by space from spelling out all the relevant context in any given story. The internet has helped to resolve that problem by providing readers with readily available background, including from established providers such as Deutsche Welle and AP.
And, if readers will forgive the unsolicited promotion, “explainers” such as Alistair Lyon’s on Yemen, are now just a click away at News-Decoder.
THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- What’s the difference between “journalistic shorthand” and “fake news”?
- It is self-evident that the West Bank is “disputed.” But why does that label not tell the whole story?
- How do reliable news outlets guard against unintended bias in descriptive labels used by their contributors?
Harvey Morris was a foreign correspondent for Reuters, The Independent and Financial Times. He covered revolutions, wars, politics and diplomacy in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North and South America in more than 40 years as a journalist. He did on-the-ground reporting of the Iranian, Portuguese, Nicaraguan and Romanian revolutions, three Iraq wars, Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and two Palestinian intifadas.
Very good Harvey. This is indeed complicated. When I was a Reuters journalist, I actually found tackling such delicate balances and dilemmas interesting and rewarding. If journalists can get it right, in ways Harvey describes, then they are truly helping people understand better. Which I suggest is the main vocation of journalists.