BROOKE GLADSTONE:The conflict between the Israeli military and Hamas rages on. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, more than 800 Palestinians have been killed. As of Friday, Israel has lost 32 soldiers and at least three civilians. And each side uses very different words to tell its very different story.
As the Vienna-based International Press Institute found, even seemingly innocuous language can alienate or anger one side or the other. So with the help of three Israeli and three Palestinian journalists, it set out to identify those hot-button words and phrases that the media throw around and create a glossary that offers context and more neutral language. The results are assembled in a handbook called, “Use With Care.” Naomi Hunt, editor of the glossary, says they know the task was pretty nearly impossible.
NAOMI HUNT: There is no such thing as objective language in this conflict, because “objective” means two different things to two different sides. And so, the best you can hope for is to sort of describe how different groups might respond to different terminology, based on their own experiences and their collective memory, and so on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Were there any particular words that were especially fraught?
NAOMI HUNT: You know, I think almost every word was fairly fraught.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Give me an example. Read your entry on “Caught in the Crossfire”
NAOMI HUNT: Okay. “Reports occasionally use the expression ‘caught in the crossfire’ when referring to people who are killed during an exchange of fire, which implies, first, that the victims were civilians and, secondly, that the killing was accidental. Until it has been clarified whether the action was purposeful and whether the person killed was really a civilian, it is better to simply say they were killed.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I marveled at how you've tiptoed your way through words of death: execution, murder, liquidation, neutralization, targeted killing.
NAOMI HUNT: Any word to say that you killed somebody that implies either the guilt or the innocence of the victim or the guilt or innocence of the person doing the killing is going to be loaded for someone else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, and if you use the word “murder” you're saying one thing.
NAOMI HUNT: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you use the word “neutralization” you're saying another. Generally, you’re into “killed” or “assassinated."
NAOMI HUNT: At most, “assassinated,” for a political figure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I also want you to read the entry called Measures.
NAOMI HUNT: “Measures. There’s a Palestinian view that the word ‘measures,’ used, for example, as part of the phrase, ‘economic measures’ or ‘security measures’ minimizes actions, such as blockades or raids imposed by Israel on Palestinian civilians. Journalists should explain what measures were taken, what justification was given and what the response was on the other side.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That one could really sneak up and bite you, if you are writing on deadline.
NAOMI HUNT: That, I must say, was one of the words where it surprised me that the Palestinian journalists found that word troubling. The same with the word “development,” the Palestinian journalists thought quite strongly that the word “development” has a positive connotation of improvement, when often it is used in the context of construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank that might involve, for example, the destruction of Palestinian orchards or homes and property, which for them, therefore, is clearly negative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, the advice of the handbook?
NAOMI HUNT: Was to use the word “construction.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There were certainly some words where even the handbook concedes no alternative or neutral language could be found.
NAOMI HUNT: That’s right. The “separation barrier” is an example. The separation barrier was put up between Israel proper and the West Bank as well as Israel proper and Gaza, and is basically a wall at which there are checkpoints preventing the flow of people between those territories. It's an extremely sensitive issue, so there's a view, on one hand, that it’s a security fence or that it’s a security barrier but there’s the Palestinian view that that implies that all Palestinians are violent criminals who need to be kept away.
On the other hand, some of the Palestinian terms for the separation that you do see in some Palestinian media, like “apartheid wall,” for example, are deeply offensive to Israelis, who believe there was a legitimate reason to install the barrier, in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you call it the separation barrier.
NAOMI HUNT: That was the alternative word that we arrived at, following a lot of discussion and a lot of back-and-forth, and which I think probably made nobody happy, which was our only indication that it might be the best one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It is kind of interesting that when you tried to shear words and phrases of their political meanings and of their emotional contexts, you end up reducing the amount of information they provide. I mean, you either can choose them telling one half of the story or the other half of the story, or less of the story altogether.
NAOMI HUNT: I wonder if we’re reducing the amount of information, I think certainly the amount of poetry. The alternatives that we provide, I wouldn’t say that they’re the most riveting use of language, but that's precisely because it’s the emotional baggage of words that is offensive to people on the other side.
I believe our project on the Israel-Palestinian conflict is about three years old at this point, not very long, but even in that small timespan, we see that the same conflict comes up in a similar shape over and over again, that the communication between the two sides, if anything, seems to worsening and not improving. And so, this guidebook, we hope, for what it's worth, it will help people who are interested in, in at least following along as they read the news, because it helps you to see how the language that you’re consuming also reflects a certain perspective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Naomi, thank you so much.
NAOMI HUNT: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Naomi Hunt is a Senior Press Freedom Acalendardvisor at the International Press Institute, based in Vienna, and editor of “Use With Care,” a reporter’s glossary of loaded language in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We will link to “Use With Care” on our website. Go check it out.