Who is a terrorist in AP's eyes?

Opinion: News agency’s business model dictates its content be useful very widely, so it avoids like the plague anything that smacks of taking sides – including slapping ‘terror’ label on Hamas

Dan Perry|
Israelis are often mystified by the global media’s reluctance to use the term “terrorism.” Tensions are especially high after the Oct. 7 massacre, so a veritable uproar greeted the Ynet report this week on updated instructions by the Associated Press to avoid the term when referring to Hamas. As the former chief editor of the agency for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, I feel compelled to explain.
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The main thing to understand is that AP produces extremely serious and thoughtful journalism that attempts to be fair. Accusing such journalists of conscious bias is basically nonsense. That said, as with Reuters and several other agencies, the business model dictates that the content be useful very widely – to websites, TV stations, and so on all over the world and on both sides of any conflict. In Israel and Arab countries. in Croatia and Serbia. In Ukraine and until recently also in Russia. As a result, they avoid like the plague anything that smacks of taking sides. They would rather look ridiculous than use politically charged terminology that suggests taking sides.
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בניין Associated Press
בניין Associated Press
(Photo: AP)
Sometimes Israel benefits. For example, AP does not generally refer to the West Bank occupation or the Jewish settlements as "illegal,” although there is a strong argument for this. It drives the Palestinians crazy. The agencies also don't tend to call dictators dictators, by the way: Putin, Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, Bashar al-Assad in Syria - they are all presidents just like Joe Biden. No one needs the headache.
Few words have the potential to cause a headache like "terror" - because as is known, my terrorist is your freedom fighter, and AP wants us both as clients. Even before the directives of the last few days, the policy called for using "terrorist" and "terror" was only to do so when the terms are attributed to authorities, and instead to describe specific actions carried out. Instead, the agency prefers to refer to them as "militants" or "gunmen" or "shooters," "suicide bombers" or "attackers." It does seem logical, because calling someone a terrorist can seem on the one hand too general (why not say what he did exactly?) and on the other too deterministic, as if implying almost a fixed occupation (like a pastry chef, or journalist).
Specificity seems a practical way to circumvent endless debate about where to use “terrorist.” Such a discussion would quickly turn to potential claims that Israeli counterattacks against Hamas - or American ones against the Taliban - are "state terrorism" when civilians are harmed. And object though many Israelis may, this is very far from crazy. Most people around the world would agree, and it’s not because they're antisemitic; it’s because they see dead civilians and mass destruction that was no surprise to the perpetrator, even if it’s a state.
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בניין Associated Press
בניין Associated Press
(Photo: AP)
For AP and other cautious organizations, the exception, and this is a huge loophole, is that they allow themselves to use the word when addressing something “widely recognized” as terrorism. This raises the question: Whose recognition? How wide should it be?
I remember how in the early 2000s, when we covered the second Palestinian intifada, we wrestled with the question of whether suicide bombers who blow up innocent people in Israeli pubs and buses could be labeled as "terrorists."
Britannica defines terrorism as "the calculated use of violence to create a general climate of fear in the population and thereby achieve a certain political goal." It seemed to apply, but the instinct in the system was against it. "Suicide bombing" is more specific. I succumbed to this, but noted with interest that after the September 11 attacks, there was no hesitation in referring to the "hijackers" as terrorists.
A few years ago I was the editor in charge of the coverage of the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Honestly, I am not a big fan of all the gymnastics over language. We called ISIS a terrorist organization. No one seemed to care, and so the policy was preserved.
דן פריDan Perry
In the end, it's a practical matter. Potentially problematic vocabulary is more likely to be used when there is a reasonable chance that the vast majority of the readership - or in the case of the agencies, the clientele - will not object. It is a less lofty paradigm than the unbending zeal for specificity – but I assess it to be true.
In the end, we are talking about the judgments of extremely busy humans who are imperfect like all others. As is often the case in life, there is the official story and then there is the real world. In the real world, I think it goes more or less like this: if a murderous attack seems insane and just plain evil, journalists might bite the bullet and call it terrorism. But if the event attaches to some annoying and never-ending tribal quarrel, where everyone is guilty of something to one degree or another, then you just don't need the headache and you find a neutral word.
Not always fair, perhaps – but just possibly the least bad option.
  • Dan Perry was AP’s Europe-Africa Editor based in London, Middle East Editor based in Cairo, and chairman of the Foreign Press Association for Israel and the Palestinian territories. He is the author of two books about Israel.
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