What is Terrorism and Why Does its Definition Matter?

What is “terrorism”?

We’re used to hearing the media describe well recognized terror organizations with euphemisms like, militants, extremists, or sometimes even obscenely activists. One might reasonably come to believe that terrorism has no definition at all, or that it’s all a matter of subjective opinion. After all, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” right?


In truth, terrorism can be clearly defined, nations do clearly designate terror organizations as a matter of policy, and the “freedom fighter” quote doesn’t mean what you think.

Words have power, and when journalists use deceptive, vague or inappropriate words, they unfortunately prejudice readers. That’s why misleading terminology is a form of media bias.

Terrorists or freedom fighters?

After the attacks of 9/11, Stephen Jukes, then Reuters’ global news editor, sent a memo instructing the wire service staff not to use the word terror. His explanation became a catch-phrase for the news industry’s moral ambiguity:

We all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and that Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist.


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he Jukes quote is now famous. Less well known is that David Schlesinger, Reuters’ global managing editor later explained the real reasoning behind the decision: after a local newspaper named CanWest used a Reuters article, but added the word “terrorist.” Schlesinger objected to the modification, saying that such changes could lead to “confusion” about what Reuters is reporting and possibly endanger its reporters in volatile areas or situations. Said Schlesinger:

My goal is to protect our reporters and protect our editorial integrity.

The global managing editor of Reuters had in effect confirmed that the real reason for avoiding the word “terrorist,” was to protect Reuters journalists from being harmed or killed… by terrorists.

As admirable as it may be to protect one’s employees from harm, this policy raises a critical problem:

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Reuters openly asserted that it will sacrifice its journalistic integrity to the benefit whomever threatens their reporters with the greatest harm. This was not a noble recognition of varying points of view about “freedom fighting” as Jukes claimed, but a capitulation to the very terrorists that Reuters refused to identify as such.

All of which begs the question: If journalists are going to (perhaps understandably) place their personal safety over accurate news reporting, don’t they have an obligation to, at the very least, inform news audiences? This is a breach of professional journalism known as “lack of transparency.” Among other things, news services must disclose when the circumstances in which  reporters work affect their coverage (such as death threats).


There are many well accepted definitions of “terror,” “terrorism,” and “terrorist,” that journalists could adopt in good faith.

The Oxford Dictionary calls terrorism “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”

For political reasons, the United Nations has not established an official definition as such. Rather, the UN cites to a “customary rule” which requires the following three key elements (emphasis added): (i) the perpetration of a criminal act (such as murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, arson, and so on), or threatening such an act; (ii) the intent to spread fear among the population (which would generally entail the creation of public danger) or directly or indirectly coerce a national or international authority to take some action, or to refrain from taking it; (iii) when the act involves a transnational element.

Todd Gitlin, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, explains that a common academic definition is, “a violent act in order to strike terror in the hearts of a population toward a political end.”

There are numerous other sources of definitions, ranging from governments to think tanks . All more or less reflect a consensus on how to define terror.

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Designated terror organizations

Even if a journalist does not adopt any particular definition of terrorism, it is possible to refer to individual terror organizations according to the designations adopted by world governments.

For example:

Why it’s a problem

When Hamas launched a brutal campaign of suicide bombings against Israelis, with the stated purpose to “purify” Palestine “from the Jews,” Reuters kept to its policy of moral and professional ambiguity, calling the events an “uprising for statehood.” May other news outlets adopted similar phrasing.

The term “uprising” has been applied to aspects of America’s Civil Rights movement and Britain’s Women’s suffrage movement. Thus a newsreader may be misled into believing that Hamas is no more than a peaceful political movement. How then, is such reader meant to properly understand Israel’s self defense?

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When Boko Haram massacred 25 people in a village in Nigeria, the Associated Press called them “extremists.” As of February, 2018 ISIS had killed over 2,000 people in 143 attacks over 29 countries, including gruesome videos of beheadings, yet Reuters and others still call them “millitants.” 

When journalists identify terrorists as “extremist” or “militant,” they are actually using terms that are sometimes applied to elements of both the Republican and Democratic parties.  How is a newsreader to know that the press is actually describing something very different from a particularly outspoken, but mainstream, politician?

The problem is not limited to the international sphere: Neo-Nazis and other “White Supremacists” in America carry out acts that squarely fit the FBI definition of domestic terrorism. Why then, do many media sources refer to them as “extremists”?

The Animal Liberation Front, a radical and violent animal rights organization, has been identified by the FBI as carrying out terror attacks. Yet after the group claimed credit for setting fire to an animal science facility on the Brigham Young University campus, the local press called the arsonist an “activist.” This is the same title typically applied to someone who writes an op-ed in the newspaper or speaks up at a school board meeting.

By refusing to identify terror organizations for what they are, journalists not only betray the definition of the word, but also reject the official designation assigned to such groups by much of the Western world. Most disturbingly, the journalistic euphemisms for terrorism mislead news readers into an incorrect understanding of world events. To betray that understanding is to betray the most fundamental purpose of the entire journalistic profession.

Featured image:Vecteezy.com with modifications;

Source material can be found at this site.

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