BROOKE GLADSTONE: As I mentioned, recently Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center published a paper by students, called Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media, in which they studied articles in USA Today, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and found that for most of their history they, quote, “consistently classified waterboarding as torture.” But after 9/11, things changed. The researchers also coded the stories for how waterboarding was characterized. Was it negative or soft, or was torture implied, and so on? The study has been both celebrated and derided. Harvard Law School student Neal Desai was one of its authors. Welcome to the show.
NEAL DESAI: A pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you summarize your lead findings?
NEAL DESAI: I think there are two main findings of the paper. The first is that for about 70 years before 2004, the newspapers almost uniformly called waterboarding torture. After 2004, the newspapers virtually never called the practice torture. And the second main finding is that over the entire lifespan of the newspapers – that’s stretching back to as far as the 1850s for The New York Times - when the United States was the perpetrator, the practice was almost uniformly not called torture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some of the only incidents after 2004 where waterboarding was unequivocally called torture on the news pages was when it was being carried out by other countries?
NEAL DESAI: That’s true. The Wall Street Journal had one piece that called waterboarding torture, and it dealt with East German history. One of the two articles that The New York Times referred to the word “torture” was about Chile and, again, had no mention of the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some of the categories you had for the treatment of torture in these articles seemed pretty subjective. They're called “negative treatment,” “softer treatment.”
NEAL DESAI: The big divide was, I think, between softer treatment and negative treatment. And those we broke down upon whether or not the term used had a necessarily negative connotation, so for negative treatment, something like “brutal” or “inhuman” because no matter how you look at that, it is a negative term. Softer treatment terms were things like “harsh” or “coercive” or “controversial.” These, while they can be viewed negatively, don't necessarily have a negative connotation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you don't code a detailed description of the process of waterboarding as negative, even though it might come across as very negative to a reader.
NEAL DESAI: That’s true. Any simple description of the practice we termed just no treatment, because the narrative voice was not characterizing the practice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you define a narrative voice?
NEAL DESAI: We looked to see how the paper itself was coming through. What was the choices that were being made? How were the paper speaking, as it were?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because many editors that we spoke to about the semantic treatment of waterboarding throughout the last couple of years have said that by describing it the reader gets a very complete idea of how horrible this practice is and that they don't have to use inflected adjectives. Most papers shy away from that kind of language when dealing with any subject.
NEAL DESAI: And that very well could be what’s happening. It’s for others to decide whether or not the categorizations are right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you deal with stories that use other people calling it torture, as in, for example, “Critics suspect the tapes contained evidence of waterboarding, which international human rights groups and others have denounced as torture?”
NEAL DESAI: That was a separate category that we had. And what we saw was that in a number of times that it was being used to balance softer treatment terminology. So an article would call the practice harsh, and then a few sentences later would say, or even in that sentence itself, would say, it is a practice that human rights organizations call torture, or many call torture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you didn't count it as calling it torture.
NEAL DESAI: No, because it was an editorial choice to include that but it wasn't the voice of the paper itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Editorial pages all across the country were calling this torture. Couldn't your findings just be evidence that newspapers were moving everything that could be classified as opinion to the opinion pages?
NEAL DESAI: It could be read that way. We did look at the opinion pages and we found that, in general, about 50 percent of opinion pieces called the practice torture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you worry about your classifications maybe presenting a picture of the American press as pusillanimous weenies who generally are afraid to use the term once it becomes politically freighted?
NEAL DESAI: I think our classifications are fair. We didn't come into this, into the study looking to prove a conclusion. We came interested in the question. Hopefully, we've been very transparent about exactly the findings that we have, and then we'll let others draw conclusions based upon those findings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s fascinating that you chose to quantify this. Why did you?
NEAL DESAI: We quantified it because if you have a specific basis to go upon, you can really focus in on the issues without the debate over what the facts are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now we know the facts, that at least four large papers did not use the word “torture” when the U.S. was waterboarding but did when other countries were waterboarding. That’s the issue you wanted to get us closer to by doing this study, right?
NEAL DESAI: Exactly, and it’s generated a lot of debate, and I think that’s very positive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the reaction that you've gotten?
NEAL DESAI: We've only heard from The New York Times, and we have their response in writing. They characterized the study as misleading and tendentious, and said that the decision to recharacterize the practice was done because it was a contentious issue, and they didn't want to prejudge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Neal, thank you very much.
NEAL DESAI: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Neal Desai is one of the authors of the paper Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
by by Matmos (with So Percussion)