08/02/2014 11:15 am ET Updated Aug 02, 2014

Obama Calls It 'Torture,' But The Media Still Won't


Even President Obama's blunt declaration on Friday that the United States "tortured some folks" in the years after the 9/11 attacks was not enough to get many of the country's top media outlets to abandon their practice of euphemistically referring to torture as something else.

Obama's statement was hardly his first use of the term, and it prompted several immediate questions (such as why his administration has not prosecuted anybody for the torture he admits happened). But it also raised an issue for journalists: if the president of the United States can call torture by its real name, why can't they?

By now, the story of the media's hesitancy around the term "torture"—at least when it applies to American actions—is well-known. So is the fact that elite outlets began finding new terms to describe practices they once labeled torture right around the time that the Bush administration began insisting that it wasn't torturing anyone. That shift is still firmly in place.

Many of the press reports about Obama's comments avoided using the term when they weren't quoting him directly. The New York Times referred to "brutal interrogation" and "the conduct of some in the intelligence community." The Los Angeles Times wrote that Obama had "acknowledged the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation tactics" and also, in something of an understatement, mentioned "sometimes-grisly tactics." USA Today used the phrases "enhanced interrogation techniques" and "disputed interrogation techniques."

Other outlets, such as the Associated Press, split the difference, going back and forth between using the word and using euphemisms:

The United States tortured al Qaida detainees captured after the 9/11 attacks, President Obama said Friday, in some of his most expansive comments to date about a controversial set of CIA practices that he banned after taking office.