NBC News helps public come to 'terms' with the Iraq conflict

The latest headlines about the Iraq war have not only been about carnage, but about the terminology used to classify the conflict.

The latest headlines about the Iraq war have not only been about carnage, but about the terminology used to classify the conflict.

The most noticeable shift came from NBC News when Today's Matt Lauer announced that the program had made a carefully considered decision to now refer to the Iraq war as a "civil war."

This announcement was accompanied by a slew of other outlets noting their use of the term and giving their particular reasons behind the escalation in vocabulary, despite the White House's refusal to acknowledge the Iraq war as a civil war.

Why does it matter?

While this issue may seem like semantics, the White House isn't just fighting for message control. The repeated usage of "civil war" could increase pressure to end US involvement. One White House insider told Newsweek in August, "If there's a full-blown civil war, the President isn't going to allow our forces to be caught in the crossfire."

The designation could also lead to further influence on public opinion. "This doesn't carry the same weight as Walter Cronkite coming on the evening news and saying that we couldn't win the war in Vietnam," said Robert Thompson, director for the Center for the Study of Popular Television, "but it does change the way the American public may perceive the [Iraq] war."

"We understand 'civil war.' We fought one and learned about it in school; sectarian violence means nothing to Americans," he added. "How you frame something and what you decide to call it will have an impact on how the story is told based on some underlying assumptions that may not have been clear before."

Five facts:

1 According to The New York Times, the scholarly definition of "civil war" is two warring groups from the same country fighting over political power and a death toll of 1000-plus.

2 According to an Editor & Publisher survey, The Los Angeles Times was one of the first newspapers to refer to the Iraq conflict as a "civil war."

3 National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told Reuters last Monday that neither President George W. Bush nor Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki believe the conflict in Iraq is a civil war.

4 Thompson added that calling this a "civil war" supports the idea that journalists are trying to be more aggressively independent in pursuing the story after a period of timidity following the Dixie Chicks backlash.

5 "The government has become much more sophisticated about framing issues in popular media, so we have it [trying] to avoid terms like 'war' when referring to anything to do with the US military," said Brian McGee, department chair for the College of Charleston's department of communications.

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