The US news media radically changed how it reported on the issue of waterboarding after it emerged that US forces had used the practice, says a new study from Harvard University.
The study also found a double standard when defining waterboarding, with news sources commonly referring to waterboarding as “torture” when talking about foreign countries using the practice, but declining to do so when it’s being carried out by the United States.
The study (PDF) reports:
From the early 1930’s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.
The study went on to note a marked difference in the way waterboarding is portrayed when the individuals doing the waterboarding are American, and when they’re not.
[N]ewspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.
The study, from Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, may be the first empirical evidence of what many media critics have been accusing the US media of, anecdotally, for some time: That the press changed its standards for “torture” once it became known the US was practicing it.
That shift was not an accident, argues Salon.com blogger Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the study.
“Media outlets such as the NYT, The Washington Post and NPR explicitly adopted policies to ban the use of the word ‘torture’ for techniques the US government had authorized once government officials announced it should not be called ‘torture,'” Greenwald writes.
“We don’t need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task: once the US government decrees that a technique is no longer torture, US media outlets dutifully cease using the term,” Greenwald writes.
Adam Serwer at the American Prospect argues that it’s not “servitude” to the media that motivated the news media, but rather “the conventions of journalism … are at fault here.”
As soon as Republicans started quibbling over the definition of torture, traditional media outlets felt compelled to treat the issue as a “controversial” matter, and in order to appear as though they weren’t taking a side, media outlets treated the issue as unsettled, rather than confronting a blatant falsehood….
Of course, this attempt at “neutrality” was, in and of itself, taking a side, if inadvertently. It was taking the side of people who supported torture, opposed investigating it as a crime, and wanted to protect those who implemented the policy from any kind of legal accountability.
The Harvard study leaves it to readers to draw their own conclusion as to why the US media changed how it reported on waterboarding, but it does refute the argument, made by New York Times editor Clark Hoyt, that reporters and editors voluntarily stopped using the word torture to maintain the appearance of neutrality.
“The willingness of the newspapers to call the practice torture prior to 2004 seems to refute this claim,” the study states. “According to the data, for almost a century before 2004 there was consensus within the print media that waterboarding was torture. Yet once reports of the use of waterboarding by the CIA and other abuses by the US surfaced, this consensus no longer held….”