Journalism or Thou shalt not use a definition in vain


Thesis writing. Usually heralded as the bane for all master students. It is hard to get it exactly right. Either the scope is too broad, too small, too meaningless, too hard or another ‘too’. If you got that right, don’t forget your methodology, theory, definitions and so on. If you managed to get this far, start prepping to remove all the vague and ambiguous parts.

It was one of the most enlightening experience in my academic career. I saw the the beauty of clear, sober and definite information and reasoning. Moreover, it brought structure and meaning to every word I wrote, contrary to the random vague mass of letters that my essays used to be.

It’s also an important class for those who will make writing their professional career. Journalists-to-be are taught to write faultless. I feel that it is also important to teach them how to use definitions and theories.

My master thesis serves as a good example. Journalists condemned Vietnam with badly chosen adjectives and definitions after its intervention in Cambodia in 1979. Consequently, I got inspired to do a PhD on the media’s (mis)representation of facts during the cold war.

The ‘us against them’ attitude was pretty prevalent during the Cold War. Readers generally accepted the misrepresentation of facts in favour of being able to hate on communists/capitalists (encircle what is applicable). I hope we can say that we ask more of our media today. Being blatantly biased and one-sided will have people doubt the informative and objective value of those reports. This does not mean it doesn’t happen in more subtle ways. One such method is the apparent innocent choice of words.


Let’s take the follow quote from a Time Magazine article by Joanna Kakissis on the 11th of June 2012. She is writing about the far-left Greek political party Syriza, and its political leader Alexis Tsipras.

“The leader of a party that includes a range of leftists (such as Trotskyites and Socialists), he became the left-of-center standard bearer for antibailout and antiausterity populism”

The article starts to explain and situate the terms ‘antibailout’ and ‘antiausterity’, but does not give the same treatment to the term “populism”.

Readers might not think twice about the word ‘populism’. They nod, assume whatever follows is explaining why Tsipras measures are populist and accept it as a given. The article never explains why these measures are populist, but still, our reader has registered Tsipras to be a populist.

Populism is a manner of communicating themselves as protecting the interests of the population against the malpractices of the elite in power. It is not exactly a compliment. Therefore, when Joanna Kakisses took the liberty to describe Syriza’s left wing anti-bailout and anti-austerity measures as populism, she should situate and explain it.

However, contrary to explaining her choice of words, she quotes their leader.

“If we continue taking this austerity medicine and especially at a higher dose, that’s when Greece is going to be forced out of the euro. And when Greece leaves, the whole euro zone will start wobbling”

This response is not exactly enlightening. It doesn’t explain why Syriza is populist. It repeats that this party is against the policy of austerity and that according to Tsipras, this policy might have dire consequences for both Greece and the Euro-zone. Is Syriza a populist party? Perhaps, but it is a definition that has nothing to do with the information given in the article.

This journalist is not the only one using this term to describe political movements. Often I see terms and definitions popping up with no base to support them. I like to call this #LazyJournalism.


Another example and more controversial is the term “terrorist” or “terrorism”. According to, one can define it as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” This means that we can label any organisation or actor using violence or a threat to commit violence a terrorist.

But we don’t, In fact, journalists don’t seem to agree when an organisation ought to be labelled as terrorist. There is nothing controversial about calling Al-Qaeda or ISIS this. It becomes delicate when having to describe the YPG, Hezbollah, The Black Panthers, and so on. You can call the PKK a left wing organisation fighting for independence, or calling it a terrorist organisation seeking the division of Turkey. Depending on the background of the magazine, journalists define and colour the article.

However, the core business of the journalist should be ‘to inform’. When calling an organisation either freedom fighters or terrorists, it deserves an explanation why the journalists has chosen the words he or she did. Perhaps they are freedom fighters with a just cause but applying terrorism as a tactic. It is then up to the journalist to describe this injustice, and the terroristic measures they apply to achieve their goal. It is then up to us – the readers – to make up our minds.

The moral of the story is that each word in an article counts. Calling a political movement populist, opportunistic, realistic or organisations terrorists, militants, or freedom fighters has an impact. Our opinion as readers is guided by the words chosen by the author. And those words need to be justified. Why is the PKK a terroristic organisation? What do they do, what do they fight for, what is their ideology? Who supports them? Did they kill innocent civilians? Is terror their modus operandi?

Just like I had to justify in my thesis each term that I applied, so do journalists have to explain why they apply the definitions they use.


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