The US news media radically changed how it reported on the issue of waterboarding after it emerged that US forces had used the practice, says a new study from Harvard University.
The study also found a double standard when defining waterboarding, with news sources commonly referring to waterboarding as "torture" when talking about foreign countries using the practice, but declining to do so when it's being carried out by the United States.
The study (PDF) reports:
From the early 1930's until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.
The study went on to note a marked difference in the way waterboarding is portrayed when the individuals doing the waterboarding are American, and when they're not.
[N]ewspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.
The study, from Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, may be the first empirical evidence of what many media critics have been accusing the US media of, anecdotally, for some time: That the press changed its standards for "torture" once it became known the US was practicing it.