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How NPR decides the words we use to describe war

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Words are powerful. And in newsrooms, there are constant debates over how journalists should use certain words, like when should a reporter call a false statement a lie or call an attacker a terrorist. The person who guides NPR's thinking on these questions is our managing editor for standards and practices, Tony Cavin. Lately, he has been sending out regular guidance on language around Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza. And so we've invited him to pull back the curtain and provide some transparency on NPR's thinking about the words you hear or don't hear on our air every day. Tony, thanks for being here.

TONY CAVIN, BYLINE: Well, thank you for having me here.

SHAPIRO: Everyone in our newsroom knows who you are, but you're less well-known to our listeners. So could you start by just explaining briefly what your role is?

CAVIN: Sure. We have an ethics code that we are supposed to follow that makes us fair and responsible journalists. And my job is to do my best to make sure we're actually following that code. The one thing we bring to the table as a news organization is trust, and if we don't have our listeners' trust because we appear to be taking sides, then it's very hard for us to go beyond that.

SHAPIRO: So in many cases, you are taking kind of abstract principles from the ethics code and applying them to specific scenarios. And I'd love for you to tell us about what that process is before we get to the specifics of the war in Gaza. Like, how do you approach a question that many people will disagree on the correct answer to? Early in my journalism career, there was a national debate over whether to use the word torture to describe abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. What is your process for coming up with an answer to a question like that?

CAVIN: Well, the key to the process is to discuss it. I don't want you to think for a moment, I don't want our listeners to think for a moment, that I am either smart enough or arrogant enough to try and do all of this by myself. I talk to our newsroom leaders. I talk to editors. I talk to people like yourself. I talk to our reporters. And we work through these questions and try and come up with the answer that is as fair and truthful as possible.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's look at the story that is on our air every day and has been for six months - the war in Gaza. In the memos that you have sent out since October 7, the word genocide has come up more than once. You have written, it is one of the more powerful words in the English language. What should listeners know about how and when NPR uses that word?

CAVIN: Generally, NPR does not use that word. We may quote other people using that word. And that word is essentially an accusation. Genocide is a legal term. It's a crime. And one of the things you need to prove genocide is you need to prove intent, and that makes it very hard to prove. There are very few cases of proven genocide.

So when we quote someone accusing someone else on either side of genocide, we point out whether or not the accused has responded and said that this is not true, and also we point out that it's a legal term and what some of the conditions you need to meet to make that legal term are. So we're not just letting that accusation hang in the air as if it were there all alone, but we try and let listeners understand what that accusation means, who's responded to it, and the listeners themselves can decide whether or not they think it's valid.

SHAPIRO: A couple other words that you dig into in your most recent memo are antisemitism and Islamophobia. Just to quote one section from your most recent guidance, you write, "criticizing Israeli government policy or Prime Minister Netanyahu is not antisemitic. Criticizing Netanyahu because he is Jewish is. Linking all Jewish people to Israeli government policy is antisemitic." And later you add, in what seems like maybe a possible understatement, the lines can be blurred. So what is your bottom line for NPR as a news organization when we think about how we should or should not label actions or statements as antisemitic or Islamophobic?

CAVIN: I think we should use descriptions rather than labels whenever we can. However, if, for example, students at a university feel that demonstrations against the war have crossed the line into antisemitism, we need to explain why. If we don't explain why, it might give off the impression that could be false, that those students simply think that someone criticizing Israeli policy is being antisemitic. But those students - and it's all very hypothetical - may well say, no, there were people making specific accusations about Jews in those demonstrations, and therefore we feel they were antisemitic.

The same would be true for Islamophobia. People who conflate the actions of Hamas with Islam or the actions of a number of militant groups that claim to be acting in the name of Islam with all Muslims, that we need to be careful of as well. So, like I say, what we want is descriptions rather than labels. But if people are using those labels, we need to put them in context.

SHAPIRO: Does your guidance on these subjects ever change or evolve over time? Once you've issued a memo, is it set in stone?

CAVIN: It does. I know we're talking about very weighty subjects here, but one of the - my baptism by fire at NPR was I made the foolish mistake of putting out a memo of how I had heard from politicians in Texas we should pronounce the word Uvalde...

SHAPIRO: Oh, I remember this.

CAVIN: ... In English. And I got 51 replies...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) The great Uvalde dispute.

CAVIN: The great Uvalde dispute.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CAVIN: That was my welcome to NPR. And I ended up by saying, you know, as long as the listeners understand what we're talking about, I think we're just fine. There are so many cultural and historical factors that go into something like that, and I had oversimplified it.

SHAPIRO: Tony Cavin is NPR's managing editor for standards and practices. Thank you.

CAVIN: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And if you want to dig more deeply into the NPR ethics code, it is publicly posted online at npr.org/ethics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tony Cavin
Tony Cavin is NPR's Managing Editor for Standards and Practices.
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