What’s in a word?

Journalists in newsrooms across the globe have been grappling with the language they use in telling the story of the Libyan uprising.

It’s not Tunisia or Egypt. The unrest there has gone beyond demonstrations and anti-government protests. So what do we call Libyans who are opposing strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Last week, CNN began using the word rebels. So did other news outlets.

Does rebel have a negative connotation? I don’t think so — unless there is Confederate paraphernalia involved. But apparently many people, including those fighting on the streets of Libya, don’t like the word. They didn’t like that we called the opposition fighters rebels.

We also began using sentences that said Libya was inching towards civil war. When does a conflict become civil war?

This was the topic of NPR’s “On the Media” segment Sunday. How do words change the way readers perceive the conflict there?

Here’s how Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines these terms:

Rebel: one who rebels or participates in a rebellion
Civil war: a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country

Susan Chira, foreign editor of the New York Times, said the newspaper began using both terms when it became clear that there was a military conflict in Libya. But she said the paper, just like CNN, has refrained from saying it’s an all-out civil war, though it very well could become one soon.

Yes, words can change everything.

NPR host Brooke Gladstone noted this:

“Several people have told me that the moment they hear the word ‘rebel’ they begin to disconnect. The effect is compounded when combined with the phrase ‘civil war.’ Whether or not people like us on the other side of the world choose to engage or even follow the story is a decision each of us makes every day. We think we make those choices consciously, weighing the expense and time and mental energy with what we stand to gain. But often we decide without deciding. What we choose can hinge on the unrecognized power of a single world.”

There are other words, too, that we journalists use that can influence the opinions of our readers and audiences.

Take for instance, “regime.”

Merriam-Webster defines it as a government in power. But we don’t ever say the Obama regime, do we? We only use it for governments that are deemed less than worthy.

Or “revolution.” Sudden, radical and complete change — that’s revolution. But is that what happened in Egypt? Or were we too hasty to label it so?

Sometimes terms become contagious, used repeatedly by news outlets without a thought as to whether it’s the most appropriate. The fast-changing events in North Africa have made at least this journalist think hard about every word.

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