Loaded Language

New Guidebook Tells Reporters How Not to Write About Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Reporters seeking to produce balanced coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now have a new resource: the International Press Institute's glossary, meant to help them avoid getting caught in semantic mudslinging.

A new reporter’s guidebook released on October 23 aims to balance media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a field that often spirals into semantic mudslinging at the cost of clear news coverage.

The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) published Use With Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict after a year of joint work between six anonymous Israeli and Palestinian media veterans. The two sides worked on separate content submissions, which IPI then combined through several months of back-and-forth editing.

The glossary comprises some 150 terms ranging from “terrorist” to “martyr.” Each word or expression is presented in English, Arabic and Hebrew, with an explanation of why it might be sensitive to Israeli and/or Palestinian audiences. Most entries include a suggested alternative term.

For example, the guide explains why “Apartheid wall” and “security wall/fence” are respectively offensive to Israelis and Palestinians, recommending that journalists use “separation barrier” instead. Many of the entries also address unnecessary adjectives, asking that reporters drop the modifiers from terms like “innocent civilians” and “peaceful demonstration.”

Instead of “Judea and Samaria,” “eternal capital of the Palestinian people” or “united capital of Israel,” the guide recommends geographically specific terms like the West Bank, East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem. “Israel” is recommended over both “Zionist entity” and “Jewish state.” The former is tendentious because it is perceived to deny Israeli statehood, the guide says, while the latter ignores Arab history predating the State of Israel and implies that non-Jewish Israelis are not fully part of the state.

Other terms are less obvious. “Middle East expert” is problematic, the guide says, because ideologues and activists are often referred to as experts without disclosure of their partisan views.

“This tactic is used to magnify and repeat the views that certain journalist or media wish to promote. It is dishonest and is partly to blame for the fact that audience stereotypes and viewpoints are repeatedly reinforced instead of being challenged,” the guide says. “It creates an echo-chamber effect, in which pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian readers, viewers, and listeners believe that only their frame of reference is reasonable and enlightened, while the other side is hateful, prejudiced, and extreme.”

Journalists should avoid this effect by identifying each interviewee’s job, employer and basic views, the guide says.

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie writes in her foreword that Israeli and Palestinian journalists’ personal backgrounds often create ethical obligations in conflict with their professionalism. The guide aims not to erase those ethical convictions, but to “expose potential linguistic pitfalls” that can cause some audiences to “simply shut down and stop listening,” the authors explain.

Editor Naomi Hunt said in an email that the glossary idea started during a broader IPI project on Israeli-Palestinian dialogue last year. One Israeli in an IPI forum said journalists needed to be aware of their terminology and how it would be received by the “other side,” Hunt said, which sparked the idea of a shared reporter’s guide.

Many terms were controversial in the editing process, Hunt said, most of all “terrorist” and “occupation,” both of which are presented in the book with long explanations and no alternative.

“For both of these terms there was a strong sense on one side that you must use these words and these words only… because they are a totally accurate representation of reality,” Hunt said. “On the other side, of course, there was a sense that these words are loaded and that they are used to delegitimize, respectively, what some consider acts of resistance and Israel’s presence in the West Bank.”

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Hunt’s solution was simply to “include explanations of all points of view and leave it be.” “Nakba,” for example, is presented as the Palestinian term for “the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and the establishment of Israel,” as well as “the most traumatic collective memory for Palestinians.” Israelis refer to the same incident as the end of the 1948 “War of Independence,” the guide says without endorsing either phrase.

“Something that one person finds totally innocuous may turn out to be incredibly sensitive to someone else,” Hunt said. “The important thing is to be aware.”

The project was funded by a grant from the Foreign Ministry of Norway. Hard copies will be distributed to newsrooms in Israel and Palestine over the next few weeks. A PDF version is also immediately available by online request.