When popular anger bubbled over in Libya in February, the media described it as a series of protests not unlike those seen in Egypt and Tunisia. But as the conflict escalated, the terminology shifted to "uprising" or "rebellion." This week, the Associated Press told its reporters to now refer to the fighting in Libya as a "civil war." AP Deputy Managing Editor and Standards Editor Tom Kent says the AP is constantly discussing the best terminology to use when reporting the news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When popular anger bubbled up in Libya last February, the media described it as a series of protests calling for the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
[SOUND OF PROTESTERS]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Demonstrators took to the streets of Benghazi on Wednesday.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The western media’s only got hold of footage of the protests through YouTube.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Protests in Libya are spreading across the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But as the conflict escalated, it no longer fit the protest model of the Arab spring of Egypt and Tunisia, and the media's terminology shifted.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It is now early morning in Libya and the uprising continues.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Libya’s uprising is moving ever closer to Tripoli, but the situation is fluid.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: But it seems this rebellion is now on Qaddafi’s doorstep.
[SOUND OF PROTESTERS’ SHOUTS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Four months later, “uprising” and “rebellion” are no longer terms of choice for the media. Yet again, the conflict has been redefined.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The more pictures emerge of the fighting, the more it looks like a civil war.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Red Cross is calling it a full scale civil war.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: President Jacob Zuma of South Africa arrived to mediate in Libya's civil war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week the Associated Press sent a memo out to reporters and editors, informing them that the AP would now refer to the fighting in Libya as a “civil war.” Some other news agencies have already used the term, but the wide-ranging AP is a standard bearer of language usage for many news outlets. It makes “civil war” official.
Tom Kent is the AP's deputy managing editor and standards editor. He says the change was not taken lightly.
TOM KENT: Originally we decided not to use the term because we felt that the fighting was really a local rebellion, a local insurrection. It didn't have the characteristics of a civil war.
And then after awhile we reviewed it again at the recommendation of our staff in the Mideast, and we pulled out everything we knew about poli- sci and decided that it really was a civil war by now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What elements define the events in Libya as a civil war? What makes it different from an armed uprising?
TOM KENT: Well, the National Transitional Council, which represents the rebels, controls about a third of the inhabitable part of the country at this point, and each side is really a, a coherent group, with some military power of its own. And the fighting is basically over internal issues, and it's been going on for a long time.
Neither side is the creation of foreign powers, although one side obviously is getting help. So you add that up, and it looks like a civil war to us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom, some parties to the struggle say that this is a war between the whole population and one man with an army he maintains with mercenaries. Do you think that's true? And would that still meet the definition of civil war?
TOM KENT: Qaddafi still has support. He still has a city that could be rising up against him but isn't. He still has a coherent military. That could change. And our own terminology is flexible, but at the moment it, it looks like a civil war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, words are important, which is why you took so much time to consider these words. How do you think your decision will change people's perception of the conflict?
TOM KENT: People can react to the fact that something is a civil war in many ways. They can decide it's a civil war. We shouldn't get involved. They could say it's a civil war and one side is perpetuating atrocities, and we should get involved. We don't set out to change people's perception. We're describing what it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week ten American congressman filed a lawsuit against the President, saying that he overstepped his authority by participating in the NATO operation in Libya. The White House meanwhile says the US role in the conflict is limited and that we are not at war.
The AP's use of “civil war,” which will be reflected in all of the news outlets that pick up the AP's articles and follow the AP style, is going to have some bearing on foreign policy.
TOM KENT: Well I'd like to think that foreign policy will be decided on issues other than AP’s terminology. There are civil wars worth intervening and, and civil wars not worth intervening in. I just don't think that the term changes what the situation is, as policymakers would see it.
People will have to make their judgments about political and military action toward Libya based on the broad sense of what the conflict is, rather than whether it’s a civil war specifically or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right but, as you said, among the various ways that people may respond to the words “civil war” one response that is raised most often - it was raised by Politico - is that it would generally diminish the American appetite to intervene. If it's an internal struggle, it's not our business.
TOM KENT: I don't know that that's so. In the 1990s there was a civil war in the Balkans that the US got involved in, and I think there was general feeling in the United States at the time that it was a good idea. So I don't think that causing - calling something a civil war, per se, means that it’s a hands-off situation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There were many who objected to the transition from the word “protester” to word “rebel” to describe participants in the uprising. There was some pushback, some negative reaction. Have you experienced any with your adoption of the phrase “civil war?"
TOM KENT: At least within our organization we haven't had any pushback. And, as a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite. In March some AP reporters were calling it a civil war, and we thought that was going too far, so we - we pulled people back a little by saying it's not a civil war, at least yet; let’s not use that term.
So when we finally said “civil war” is okay, I imagine a lot of people, you know, thought to themselves, well finally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So among the journalists, no pushback. What about from political operatives?
TOM KENT: To my knowledge, we have not had any reaction. Someone who wrote about our decision asked the White House, and they had no comment, which is sort of how I feel. We described the situation adequately and accurately, and I think the policy debate should go on on another basis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom, thank you very much.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
TOM KENT: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Kent is the deputy managing editor and standards editor at the Associated Press.