Waterboarding in the Media
21st century. The media’s modern coverage of waterboarding did not begin in
earnest until 2004, when the first stories about abuses at Abu Ghraib were released. After this point, articles most often used words such as “harsh” or
“coercive” to describe waterboarding or simply gave the practice no treatment, rather than labeling it torture as they had done for the previous seven decades.
There is also a significant discrepancy between the point of view offered by news
articles and opinion pieces published in these papers. Opinion pieces were much
more likely to characterize waterboarding as torture, suggesting that the private
opinion of the editors and contributors did not align with the formal face the
papers were presenting in their objective reporting.
Yet what caused this change in waterboarding’s treatment over time? Our
data does not give any specific reason for this shift, but merely points to the
existence of this change in syntax. A piece published by the public editor of The
NY Times, Clark Hoyt, 18 suggests that these choices were made deliberately by
journalists and their editors, perhaps in an effort to remain neutral in the debate
going on in the U.S. If the classification of waterboarding as torture is unclear,
Hoyt suggests, then it is irresponsible for journalists to preempt this debate by
labeling it as such.
The willingness of the newspapers to call the practice torture prior to 2004 seems
to refute this claim. 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 U.S.
surfaced, this consensus no longer held, despite the fact that the editors
themselves seem to have still been convinced that waterboarding was torture,
often labeling it as such in their editorials.
The classification of waterboarding is not unclear; the current debate
cannot be so divorced from its historical roots. The status quo ante was that waterboarding is torture, in American law, 19 international law, 20 and in the
newspapers’ own words. Had the papers not changed their coverage, it would
still have been called torture. By straying from that established norm, the
newspapers imply disagreement with it, despite their claims to the contrary. In
the context of their decades‐long practice, the newspaper’s sudden equivocation
on waterboarding can hardly be termed neutral.
Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy