Militiamen? Activists? Terrorists?
In the wake of the seizure of a federal wildlife management building in eastern Oregon by armed protesters on Saturday, the news media have struggled with how to refer to the people involved.
The descriptions have included "self-styled militiamen" (Reuters), "armed activists" (the New York Times) and "armed protesters" (The Washington Post), as well as a number of other variations on the theme.
The media's attempts to find a neutral formulation were in stark contrast with the partisan fray on social media, where supporters and detractors of the protest group found their own adjectives. The majority of those posting under the Twitter hashtag #OregonUnderAttack seemed to prefer more loaded phrases, such as "domestic terrorists."
The debate over what to call the 150 or so men involved in the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is reminiscent of other long-standing controversies involving labels that can be interpreted as biased. Republicans, for example, have pressed President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidates to use the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" to describe various terrorist acts - something the Democrats have rejected as unhelpful to combating terrorism as well as inaccurate.
News media wrestle frequently with such characterizations, hoping to steer as neutral a course as possible.
Almost all major news outlets surveyed on Sunday said they were avoiding the use of the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" in connection with the Oregon protest, saying it was unclear that the group's action was designed to terrorize or harm anyone.
"We are mainly referring to them as 'protesters' or 'armed men who are occupying the refuge headquarters,' " said Kim Murphy, the assistant managing editor for foreign and national news at the Los Angeles Times. "This is a dispute that clearly goes to a fundamental public policy debate, and we don't add any value by attempting to characterize it."
Scott Wilson, The Washington Post's national editor, said the paper is using the terms "occupiers" and "militia members" when those involved identify themselves that way.
"We believe these terms most precisely describe what is taking place, the tactics being used and those involved," he said. "Further, terrorism is a tactic meant to instill fear in a population or group. In this case, the occupiers, though armed, are not terrorizing, but rather occupying a government building in protest or solidarity."
The group's apparent leader, Ammon Bundy, told CNN: "We are not terrorists. We are concerned citizens and realize we have to act if we want to pass along anything to our children."
The group's leaders said they occupied the empty government building near Burns, Oregon, to protest the federal government's treatment of two local ranchers convicted of arson for burning federal land. The ranchers, Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, are scheduled to report to federal prison on Monday.
Several news organizations, including Reuters, The Post and the New York Times, called the occupiers "militiamen." But even that word was up for debate.
The New York Times' editors wrestled with the best description when the story broke late Saturday, said Marc Lacey, the newspaper's weekend editor. "We are currently using 'militiamen' in a headline on the website that is in the process of being updated, and we believe the most accurate term in the article may be 'armed anti-government activists,' " he said.
Bundy, on CNN on Sunday, said he wouldn't describe his group as a militia. For what it's worth, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "militia" as "a group of people who are not part of the armed forces of a country but are trained like soldiers" - a description that would not cover the loose assemblage that broke away from a larger protest in Oregon to occupy the building.
A further issue: How, if at all, to characterize the politics of the group involved? Many media accounts left that question untouched, but several noted that the protest had its roots in conservative resentment over the government's efforts to enforce land-use restrictions on ranchers.
The Oregon protest appears to be an outgrowth of a 2014 standoff between Bureau of Land Management authorities and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, the father of Ammon Bundy, after BLM agents had attempted to confiscate cattle Bundy had illegally grazed on federal land.
Fox News, on its website, noted that the protest was touched off by the sentencing of the Hammonds, which it said "touched a nerve with far right groups who repudiate federal authority."
The New York Times also said that Cliven Bundy "previously galvanized conservative critics" with his stand against federal authorities.
The Post noted all this background but avoided using the terms "conservative" or "right wing" to describe the occupiers. Wilson, the national editor, said the paper will "likely try to avoid (such labels) unless we have evidence to support one of those characterizations."