In its first drone strike in Yemen in 2015, carried out on 26 January, the US reportedly killed three people. Reuters broke the story, writing that the attack “killed three men believed to be al Qaeda militants”—although the uncertainty implied in such a sentence was not conveyed through the article’s much less-nuanced title, “CIA drone strike kills al Qaeda men in Yemen.” There is no indication anywhere in the piece that civilians were killed in the strike.
Several hours later, the Wall Street Journal chimed in on the story. It reported that two “suspected militants” were killed in a US drone strike. The third victim is conspicuously absent from the headline and subheadline. The former reads “U.S. Drone Strike Kills Two Suspected Militants in Yemen,” the later “Suspected Militants Were Saudi, Yemeni; American Embassy in Capital Is Closed.”
Where is the missing third “suspected militant”?, one might wonder. To find this answer, one must read more critically. In doing so, one will see that a 12-year-old boy was also killed in the strike.
One would think that the US extrajudicially killing a 12-year-old boy would make for a news-worthy story. Yet the corporate media has buried it and yawned.
The Wall Street Journal does not mention the death of the boy in the headline, the byline, the subheadline, the lead, or the first 3.5 paragraphs. In fact, in the over 600 words of text in the body of the article, the murder of the young boy is mentioned precisely one time, in a single line at the end of the fourth paragraph. No more explication is given.
This killing is also buried in microscopic text in the caption under the picture. Because everyone closely reads tiny photo captions. Note how the language changes from the active voice to the passive voice when it comes to the death of the boy: The US strike killed two suspected militants, but only “left” the pre-teen dead. It almost sounds as though he was already dead before the attack.
Associated Press was slightly better in its coverage, yet still left much to be desired. In its second paragraph, it reported that two Yemeni fighters and a Saudi fighter were killed, tagging on the fact, as if it were a mere nuisance, that a “boy was also reported killed.” One more sentence is devoted to the child, yet another nameless, faceless victim, proverbially buried in an unmarked grave in the 16th paragraph of a 22-paragraph article.
Journalistic “Neutrality” at Work
This is how the “neutral” media works. Journalists can claim they reported the “facts,” even when they hyper-emphasized some over others and buried the inconvenient ones where few will see them.
Studies show that the vast majority of readers do not finish news articles. A 2014 American Press Institute study found that 59% of Americans do not watch, read, or listen to news stories beyond the headlines. Corporate media publications are well aware of this, and bury undesirable information in the middle of articles, where skimmers will overlook it.
This is not the only problematic practice. Even the use of “suspected militant” is ideological and irresponsible. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald has detailed how the Obama administration re-defined “militant” as “all military-age males in a strike zone,” so that the US government could claim its drone strikes are precise and effective. Greenwald writes:
Virtually every time the U.S. fires a missile from a drone and ends the lives of Muslims, American media outlets dutifully trumpet in headlines
that the dead were “militants” – even though those media outlets literally do not have the slightest idea of who was actually killed. They simply cite always-unnamed “officials” claiming that the dead were “militants.” It’s the most obvious and inexcusable form of rank propaganda: media outlets continuously propagating a vital claim without having the slightest idea if it’s true.
This practice continues even though key Obama officials have been caught lying, a term used advisedly, about how many civilians they’re killing. I’ve written and said many times before that in American media discourse, the definition of “militant” is any human being whose life is extinguished when an American missile or bomb detonates (that term was even used when Anwar Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son, Abdulrahman, was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen two weeks after a drone killed his father, even though nobody claims the teenager was anything but completely innocent: “Another U.S. Drone Strike Kills Militants in Yemen”).
Renowned researchers at Stanford University and Columbia University have conducted studies detailing how the US government and its media have drastically underreported civilian deaths in drone strikes. US drones have terrorized civilians throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, to the point that children say they are “scared to go outside,” lest they be murdered by invisible flying robots. These factors have led scholars like Noam Chomsky to call the US government’s drone program “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times.”
The redefinition of “militant” to mean its exact opposite, civilian, is a truly Orwellian example of Doublespeak—almost unbelievable in its degree of absurdity—that doubtless has the 1984 author rolling in his grave.
Dishonest practices such as these only further demonstrate how, in journalism, and in politics in general, “neutrality” is just a euphemism for “obedient support of the status quo.”