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Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Who Dies in Yemen Drone Strikes?

A headline is sometimes worth a thousand words, and this was definitely the case after a deadly drone strike occurred in Yemen last week.

 "Drone Strike Kills Six Suspected Militants in Yemen,” a Reuters headline (8/7/13) declared.  "More Suspected Al-Qaeda Militants Killed as Drone Strikes Intensify in Yemen," a headline  (8/8/13) offered. Whatever the language, one message was clear: "Suspected terrorists" or "militants" had been killed.

But with several drone strikes over the past week in Yemen, how can anyone actually know who is being killed?

The deceptive way the Obama administration defines "militants" has already been well-established–as the New York Times (5/29/12) put it, the White House policy "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants."

But awareness of this kind of doublespeak has not deterred reporters from using the term to describe drone casualties. Media generally refer to the victims as "militants" (Salon, 5/29/12)–which essentially allows the government to define the victims of its attacks.


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In many cases, though,  it is unclear exactly who has been killed. Reporters often rely on government officials to characterize the victims, which is reckless; not only does the U.S. government have a deceptive definition of "militant," but the government of Yemen has been known to claim that civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes were actually combatants, as the Washington Post (12/24/12) reported.

In contrast to corporate media's acceptance of a self-serving official line, an independent outlet like Democracy Now! reported in one recent  segment (8/7/13) that "officials said the dead were Al-Qaeda suspects, but witnesses who arrived at the scene found only charred bodies and the wreckage of two vehicles."

Corporate media too often serve to legitimize U.S. military actions instead of scrutinizing them. Much of the recent coverage portrayed the attacks as serving the greater purpose of foiling an Al-Qaeda plot:  "An American drone delivers a deadly message to Al-Qaeda," as CBS Evening News (8/7/13) put it .

The tendency to let government officials determine who is killed in drone strikes only underscores the lack of interest when others try to put faces to collateral damage. When Yemeni journalist Farea al-Muslimi  testified before Congress about the suffering that drones had inflicted upon people in his country, it was not even considered newsworthy to mainstream media (FAIR Blog, 4/24/13).

Rebecca Hellmich

Rebecca Hellmich is a staff intern for the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).

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