Toronto Star

ISIS? ISIL? What’s in a name?

Why are there inconsiste­ncies in how the media refer to the terrorist group?

- Kathy English Public Editor

ISIS? ISIL? IS? Islamic State, Daesh? How do we name terror today?

It is not surprising that media audiences — and journalist­s — around the world are expressing confusion about the many iterations of the name of the terrorist organizati­on that struck Paris last week, killing 129 people and injuring many others.

Throughout the globe, both media organizati­ons and politician­s themselves refer to this terrorist group by various labels, a result of complex geopolitic­al sensitivit­ies connected to translatio­n questions, the genesis of the organizati­on and its own efforts last year to rename itself as the “Islamic State.”

Most major news organizati­ons, like the Toronto Star, have adopted style guidelines that determine how they will write and speak about this group. Such style guidelines are in-house edicts intended to create consistenc­y throughout the news organizati­on and clarity for readers.

But, following an email discussion this week among global news ombudsmen, public editors and readers’ editors who belong to the Organizati­on of News Ombudsmen (ONO), it is clear to me that worldwide — and even within Canada — there is considerab­le inconsiste­ncy in how we refer to this group of terrorists.

The Star, in line with the current style of most internatio­nal news organizati­ons and wire services, now refers to the “Islamic State group” or “Islamic State militants.”

In headlines, that can be shortened to “ISIS” — the short form of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That is the name the group was widely known by until June 2014, when it declared a new “Islamic caliphate” and called itself the “Islamic State,” a move characteri­zed by the media as an attempt to “rebrand” itself.

Turn on your TV, however, and you will hear President Barack Obama talk about the evil of “ISIL.” In quoting Obama, so too would the Star use ISIL. That is the short form of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. To simplify (overly so), “Levant” refers to a wider area of the Middle East than Syria.

Adding to the confusion in Canada, the Star does not follow the “preferred style” of The Canadian Press, the wire service used by most Canadian newspaper organizati­ons. It calls for the use of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and ISIL on second reference. But, as James McCarten, editor of the CP Stylebook, told me this week, “We find ourselves these days adding ‘also known as ISIS or ISIL,’ since both can readily appear in quotes mere paragraphs apart.”

Both the Star and CP agree that the abbreviati­on “IS” should not be used as it is looks confusing in print. But, that two-letter short form is the style of several European news organizati­ons that weighed in during our ombudsmen group discussion this week.

Other news organizati­ons represente­d in our group have instituted restrictio­ns against references to “the” Islamic State, offering logic that makes good sense to me.

“There is no such recognized country or entity, so our scripts should refer to Islamic State fighters or militants or terrorists or insurgents,” Alan Sunderland, director of editorial policy at the Australian Broadcasti­ng Corporatio­n, told us.

“In this context the only acceptable use of the definite article is if we say the Islamic State group or the Islamic State terrorist group, etc., making it clear that we are not talking about a recognized nation state.”

Britain’s BBC is somewhat in line with that, using “Islamic State” but insisting that it be qualified, i.e., “self-styled Islamic State” or “so-called Islamic State.”

In France, the Islamic State terrorist group is increasing­ly called Daesh, so stories in the Star from that country might use that term, especially in quotations. Again, to over simplify, Daesh is a form of an acronym for the group’s full Arabic name. Many media reports this week suggest that it is a term the group itself opposes. But, both the U.S. secretary of state and the president of France have referred to it by this name in recent days.

What should we make of all of this? Largely, what matters is that readers understand the terminolog­y and the inconsiste­ncies that arise within and across news organizati­ons in our global village even as the media make considerab­le efforts to be accurate, clear and consistent in their usage. I am quite certain most every major news organizati­on has had considerab­le discussion about these “what’s in a name?” questions.

In the grand scheme of what’s at stake here, of course, the name of this terrorist organizati­on is the quintessen­tial tempest in a teapot. On this, I agree wholly with Guardian columnist John Crace, who spoke to the heart of this matter in a June column:

“The least of the problems in dealing with ISIS is deciding on what to call it,” Crace wrote.

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