The News Media Are Murdering Execution

Mark Twain famously advised that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."  In that difference between the exact and the facsimile, between illegal alien and undocumented immigrant, homosexual and gay, terrorist and militant, journalists ostensibly trading in the right words reveal their politics.

Is the habitual misuse of "execute" as a synonym for "murder" yet another skirmish in news media's relentless struggle against traditional culture?  Consider:

This summer, reporting on the ambush of an Egyptian police convoy, The Washington Post told readers that "gunmen ... executed 25 on the side of a road" ("Rising militancy threatens peacekeepers in Sinai," August 29).  The same day, the newspaper referred to the 2009 Fort Hood massacre as "the worst mass murder at a military installation in U.S. history" ("Hasan is sentenced to death for Fort Hood rampage").  And The Post noted that "no active-duty service member has been executed since 1961[.]"

Where The Post was confused, the Associated Press was simply wrong, reporting in May that "the White House says it is 'horrified' by reports that more than 100 people were executed ... in a western Syrian town."  Dictator Bashar al-Assad's forces apparently destroyed much of Bayda with mortar fire, "then stormed the town, executing [emphases added] entire families." 

Misleading substitutions of "execute" for "murder" are ubiquitous.  USA Today, editorializing on the terrorist seizure of an Algerian natural gas refinery in January, claimed that "the attackers had executed hostages as soon as they arrived[.]"

Previously, the paper had reviewed serial murders linked to German neo-Nazis and informed readers that "eight more would die over the next six years, but it wasn't until the fifth execution that police determined the deaths were connected."

After last December's Newton, Conn. school massacre, psychiatrist Gordon Livingston began a Baltimore Sun commentary by observing that "we search for the shooter's 'motive' as if we could discover satisfactory explanations for why a depressed young man would decide to execute his mother, 20 first-graders and six of their teachers."  

Adam Lanza did not execute anyone.  He murdered, then committed suicide.

The distinction is much more than a semantic quibble.  It goes to the moral and legal foundation of our society.   

The biblical Sixth Commandment forbids murder, not killing.  Self-defense is ethical; murder is a sin.

What media often have obfuscated in recent years is that a lawfully constituted state may, via due process, convict and execute a murderer.  On the other hand, an individual who kills outside the law and absent mitigating circumstances is not an executioner, but a murderer.    

Yet confusion is widespread.  In December, Reuters -- the world's largest news service -- reported that kidnappers who seized NBC journalists traveling with Syrian rebels had "executed" one of the insurgents.

The Washington Post, covering the discovery last September of 35 bodies in Veracruz, Mexico, said the victims "were members of the Zetas criminal organization and ... their executioners were members of the Gulf Cartel."   

Last March, the AP provided completely confounded coverage of a massacre of 25 Iraqi policemen by an al-Qaeda affiliate.  According to the wire service, the killings highlighted the terrorist movement's "success in regaining a foothold in an area it once dominated through executing police and murdering [all emphases added] city officials."   

One or the other, but not both.  Without accurate language conveying specific meaning, there can be neither journalism nor law.

Soviet troops committed murder when they massacred captured Polish officers at Katyn Forest in World War II.  U.S. Marines who reportedly urinated on the corpses of Afghan insurgents slain in battle may have committed desecration.  However, contrary to commentators like filmmaker Sebastian Junger (Restrepo), the Marines, engaged in lawful combat, had not murdered. 

Media have used "execution" accurately when reporting on efforts to abolish the death penalty.  A Tribune Newspapers (Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, etc.) graph accompanying the chain's 2012 article about Connecticut's move to eliminate capital punishment was labeled "Executions per year in the U.S. since 1976."  Executions, not murders.

Could an ideological bias against capital punishment -- a sentence many news outlets have campaigned against -- account for media's murder-execution conflation?  Whether the cause is conscious opposition or cultural and legal ignorance, unless readers insist on what editors do not, we could lose the ability to distinguish anarchy from war, lethal self-defense from homicidal aggression and victim from criminal.

The writer is a news media analyst in Washington, D.C.  Any opinions expressed above are solely his own. 

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