Is there a nice way to say ‘beheading’?

A few weeks ago in this space, we considered whether focusing on beheadings serves the purpose of those doing the executions.

NPR has apparently been getting a lot of pushback on the subject with each subsequent execution — beheading, if you will.

In his column today, NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, answers listeners who’ve objected to the focus on the manner of killing hostages, citing a policy from the network’s standards boss, Mark Memmott.

“I think we need to use words that accurately describe what was done. In this case, the videos appear to show the men being beheaded. The word applies. I don’t think a warning before saying the word is practical.

In longer reports, we effectively do give listeners a warning by first introducing the topic of ISIS and the killings before use of the word. But I think to require some sort of advisory before beginning each report is unnecessary. For one thing, there are few if any listeners who don’t already know about the killings and how they were carried out.”

“Saying Foley was executed would imply that the Islamic State (or ISIS) is an entity that can legally carry out such sentences. It’s better to say Foley was ‘killed’ or ‘beheaded’ or ‘murdered,'” Memmott contends.

“This is not to defend the repulsive practice,” NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos writes, “but it is to say that we cannot pretend that it does not exist—or that our refusing to use the word will somehow make the practice go away.”

  • yosh

    How about “murdered”? The method and public video are irrelevant and dwelling on them only serve the murderer’s purpose.

    • There’s certainly a “if it walks like a duck” aspect to using “murdered,” although I also bristle when journalists refer to homicides as murder because only a jury can determine if something is murder. Otherwise it’s a killing. Oh, wait, “killed” or “killing” seems to work.

    • Kassie

      I don’t think it does. If I heard, with no context, “a journalist was murdered” my brain goes to some sort of shooting, maybe because of their work, maybe wrong place at wrong time, maybe a 1000 times. If I heard, with no context “a journalist was beheaded” I’d know that an extremist group somewhere took an innocent life for a political purpose. It doesn’t server the purpose of the murder, I think of them terribly, but it does serve the purpose of the reporting organization, which by using concise words I understand quickly what happened.

      • Wouldn’t executed work?

        • “Executed” would certainly fill the bill. although using that particular word MAY suggest that the ones performing said execution might have legal standing for said execution.

          The US penal system also “executes” prisoners.

          • John

            oops. sorry. I didn’t read your answer before I wrote my own. What Onan said.

        • John

          Doesn’t NPR address that in what you quoted – executed implies some level of legitimacy to the process. They aren’t interested in saying anything that may legitimize the groups doing the beheading.

          I had a short answer to your lede: nope. there isn’t.

          • Kassie

            Basically posted the same response 3 seconds after you. Jinx!

          • John

            yeah. . . Onan did too, half an hour ago.

          • Kassie


          • John

            Well, at least we’re all on the same page, and paying attention to the article, if not so much to each other.

          • Great minds and all…

        • Kassie

          Possibly, but as is pointed out in the original post:

          ““Saying Foley was executed would imply that the Islamic State (or ISIS) is an entity that can legally carry out such sentences. It’s better to say Foley was ‘killed’ or ‘beheaded’ or ‘murdered,’” Memmott contends.”

  • Dave

    Use “behead.” If people are uncomfortable with it, good. It’s an ugly thing, and ISIL/ISIS/Whatever are an ugly outfit.

    What do they want NPR to say? That these journalists are pining for the fjords?

    • I appreciate your attempt to minimize the issue but there actually is one, as the original post pointed out. If you go back and listen to the NPR interview on the art of beheading, it’s pointed out that it specifically is meant to add more terror. So in using videos of beheading, or still shorts, or even concentrating on the method of execution, does the journalist further the aims of those doing the beheading?

      That’s a pretty important question. And it doesn’t hurt anything to ponder it as NPR obviously has done.

      In the larger picture, I would hope people are uncomfortable with the notion that innocent people are killed, and then the method of their destruction does not determine whether someone who kills innocents defines whether they’re ugly or not. They are. I don’t think beheading is what seals the deal.

      • Dave

        I was not attempting to minimize the issue.

  • joetron2030

    A bit off topic. Apologies. But the first thought that came to mind when I saw this was “NPR still has an ombudsman”?

    I agree with Starquest, though. Use “behead” it is what it is. “Murdered” is also valid.

  • yosh

    The majority of Americans, including our politicians, are in a continual frenzy fueled by slick media portrayals of gruesome killings and fanatics waving guns. We go to war when a journalist gets beheaded, but do nothing when a thousand children starve to death. We’ve lost all perspective and I blame the news profession which has learned the easiest way to make a buck is to over-dramatize a mostly irrelevant killing and argue about it during incessant news panels. They question politicians about what they are going to do about it, and then criticize them when they don’t jump on the frenzy bandwagon themselves. The “military-industrial complex” has morphed into the “media-industrial complex”. Ironically, the most rational and realistic institution in America these days might be the military.

    • As with most things in politics, there’s a West Wing parallel

      President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?

      Will Bailey: I don’t know, sir, but it is.