Words Matter


On Oct. 2, Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey—and never walked out. Weeks later, Turkish officials said Khashoggi was strangled and dismembered as part of a premeditated plan, although as of press time, his killers have not been officially indentified and his body has not been recovered.

In his last column for the Post, “What the Arab World Needs Most is Free Expression,” Khashoggi wrote, “…Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate. There was a time when journalists believed the Internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media. But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the Internet. They have also arrested local reporters and pressured advertisers to harm the revenue of specific publications… The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices.”

We may not know yet all the details behind what happened to Khashoggi, but one thing is certain: we have lost an important voice.

As journalists, we’re told that our words matter. The words we put on a page. The words we speak. Every letter and syllable can make an impact. When one of us gets silenced, it hurts all of us. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 45 journalists killed in 2018—and I’m afraid that number will grow before the year is over.

The violence against journalists also continues to spread here. In October, a Florida man was arrested for sending pipe bombs to former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the CNN offices in New York. Luckily, no one was hurt in the attempted bombings.

President Trump called the acts “despicable,” but said, “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks.”

Jeff Zucker, CNN Worldwide president, responded in a statement: “There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media. The President, and especially the White House Press Secretary, should understand their words matter. Thus far, they have shown no comprehension of that.”

Journalists also need to do a better job on how they report words. In a recent article, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan warned journalists of “parroting” everything the president said. (“With the president as their de facto assignment editor, too many seem to respond ‘how high?’ when Trump says jump.) For example, when Trump presented the idea to eliminate birthright citizenship by executive order, news organizations from the Associated Press to Bloomberg News got swept up by the “scoop” and posted misleading headlines, said Sullivan.

“(Trump) will routinely say things that aren’t even close to being true, and if you credulously repeat them—even in tweets—without saying they are false, you are arguably part of the problem,” said Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Today’s digital age has brought us closer together, but it’s also done a lot to pull us apart. The Florida man who sent the pipe bombs had a history of sending threats over Twitter, yet nothing was ever done, even when he was reported.

Things are shifting though. The Change the Terms coalition was created a year ago “with experts on terrorism, human rights, and technology around the world to gather insights on how hate operates online and how it can be stopped.” And more tech companies are being held accountable for their role with spreading misinformation.

Yes, words do matter. They matter a lot. For Khashoggi, his words and his pursuit of free expression apparently cost him his life. To honor his work (and the work of journalists no longer with us), let’s not forget why we have a voice in the first place.


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