NEW YORK -- As Congress increases pressure on the White House to define the legal grounds for U.S. military involvement in Libya, one of the country’s most influential news organizations has updated its definition of the nearly three-month old conflict.
The Associated Press is now guiding its staff to refer to the situation in Libya as a "civil war."
The move isn't just an issue of semantics. Given the media’s role in helping frame debates over politics and policy, language can make a difference in public perceptions.
For instance, public opinion over the use of waterboarding can vary, depending on whether news organizations describe the practice accurately as torture or euphemistically as "enhanced interrogation," the preferred terminology of Bush administration officials. Or building an "Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan" is less likely to meet opposition than constructing a "Ground Zero mosque," the more sinister-sounding name used by many news outlets last summer.
Similarly, the White House may find it tougher to sell the public on taking sides in a North African "civil war" rather than getting involved in a NATO-supported, limited military campaign to protect democracy-seeking rebels from a dictator's brutality.
The AP's new language has already been visible in recent articles, including a report Monday on Muammar Gaddafi's chess match with the Russian head of the World Chess Federation.
The New York Times, meanwhile, has "no set policy on referring to the Libya fighting,” according to standards editor Phil Corbett.
“Our reporters think it's certainly accurate to call it a civil war, but also important to remind readers of its origin as a popular uprising against the government,” Corbett said, adding that Times reporters in the field are the “experts” on the situation, rather than the standards editor in New York.
The AP directive, which came down from New York, followed discussions with top editors in the Middle East. And it's significant because over 1,500 newspapers around the country, along with top-ranked news sites like Yahoo News and The Huffington Post, run their copy. The Huffington Post, like many news organizations, follows AP style and will therefore also use "civil war" going forward.
Tom Kent, the AP’s deputy managing editor for standards and production, recently informed reporters and editors of the change in the memo below.
In early March, we issued guidance that we should not refer to the conflict in Libya flat-out as a "civil war."
We’re changing that guidance now. It is a civil war.
We avoided the term initially because of the short duration of the conflict. But it has gone on now at length, and shows no sign of ending.
It also has become more than an insurrection by a small group or region. The rebels, led by the National Transitional Council, are well in control of nearly a third of the inhabitable part of the country.
The term civil war also implies a conflict in which each side consists of a coherent group with a clear concept of what it’s fighting for; each side has some real military power; the fighting is basically over internal issues; and the conflict is protracted.
The conflict in Libya has met those standards. Although the rebels represent a broad base of ideology, they are united in their desire for an end to Gadhafi and the system he established. The rebels have a degree of military power apart from NATO's air assets. They also appear to have the outlines of a coherent military strategy. And armed resistance to the regime is approaching its fifth month.
No other opposition movement with North Africa and the Middle East has these qualities.
Therefore, we now are justified in referring to the Libyan conflict, flat out, as a civil war.
White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor had no comment on the AP's decision.
The language news organizations use has had an impact on previous foreign policy debates.
In 2006, the Los Angeles Times became the first major newspaper to describe sectarian violence in Iraq as a "civil war." NBC News followed shortly, drawing significant attention in media and political circles.
"Today" co-anchor Matt Lauer explained NBC's position at the beginning of a broadcast of the morning show, saying news executives had concluded that the current fighting met the definition of a civil war.
"For months now, the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war, and for the most part, news organizations like NBC have hesitated to characterize it as such," Lauer said on air in 2006. "But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted, that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterized as civil war."
Emily Katz contributed to this report.
Update: This post now includes how The Huffington Post will refer to the situation in Libya.