Reporting ‘Says’ Rather Than ‘Says It Believes’ Could Make a War of Difference

New York Times, April 26, 2013

The lead story in the New York Times print edition today (4/26/13) bore the headline:

White House Says Syria Has Used Chemical Arms

Well, that’s pretty definitive, isn’t it? But then if you read the first line of the story, you get a different picture:

The White House said Thursday that it believes the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in its civil war, an assessment that could test President Obama’s repeated warnings that such an attack could precipitate American intervention in Syria.

The White House says it “believes” Syria has used chemical weapons–and the story goes on to say that this position is held “with varying degrees of confidence” by various U.S. intelligence agencies. The White House said that “more conclusive evidence was needed” before the United States could act on this information. In the online version, this article is headlined:

White House Says It Believes Syria Has Used Chemical Arms

–a far more appropriate, and less inflammatory, summary. (The story’s url indicates that “suspects” was the original headline verb, which would arguably be a more accurate way to describe the information presented.)

Note that the Obama administration has threatened to go to war if Syria uses chemical weapons–so by mislabeling its story, the New York Times is in effect making it more likely that the United States will get involved in another Middle Eastern civil war. This is a life-and-death subject where you want to get it right the first time.

The Times is not the only outlet guilty of originally overselling this story. “U.S. Now Says Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons” is on the front page of USA Today (4/26/13); inside, a subhead tells us that the U.S. is “Still Assessing Chemicals’ Use in Attacks.”

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.