STUDY: Cable News Regularly Refers To Torture Using Euphemisms

A new project has found that when covering instances of torture, cable news refers to it via euphemisms (such as the Bush administration’s preferred language “enhanced interrogation techniques”) almost 75 percent of the time rather than actually using the word “torture.”

The study, published at, monitored over thirty print, television, and online news sources for two years to develop an infographic of how frequently euphemisms for torture were used in place of the actual word. During the observed period of Oct. 2010 through Oct. 2012, the news wire services AP and Reuters fared the best when describing torture for what it is, using euphemistic terms only 43 and 37 percent of the time respectively.

Among the newspapers indexed in the infographic, the Wall Street Journal is by far the least likely to use the word “torture” in its reporting. The Washington Post fares slightly better, with the New York Times performing best, calling “torture” for what it is two-thirds of the time. Cable news networks scraped the bottom in the study’s findings, with MSNBC proving the best of the bunch by calling torture by name only half of the time. Fox News used the term “torture” in place of other phrases only 21 percent of the time.

All of this matters as polling have shown that public opposition to the use of torture decreases when euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” are used in the place of the actual word “torture.” Usage in the media may well have improved in the last few years, though. In a previous study on whether waterboarding was deemed torture by the media — conducted in 2010 by Harvard students — the major newspapers fared far worse, refusing to refer to the act as torture throughout the years of 2002–2006. As late as 2009, the Washington Post found itself in hot water for refusing to refer to waterboarding as torture because the Bush administration, apparently, would dispute that terminology.


Debate over torture and its use in extracting information has resumed following the release of Zero Dark Thirty, a film dramatizing the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the film, scenes are included showing waterboarding of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay facility and are reportedly depicted as being an integral part of locating bin Laden. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Monday revived the claim himself, saying “the CIA program, whether you find it repugnant or not, actually was effective with KSM [9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and other people getting actionable intelligence.” His statement comes despite experts and former Bush officials saying that waterboarding did no such thing. (HT: Dan Froomkin)