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Joan Shorenstein Cente on the Press, Politics and Public Policy - Harvard Student Paper April 2010

Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media

By Harvard Students: Neal Desai, Harvard Law School. Andre Pineda, Majken Runquist, Mark Fusunyan, Harvard College

Research Team: Katy Glenn, Gabrielle Gould, Michelle Katz, Henry Lichtblau, Maggie Morgan, Sophia Wen, Sandy Wong

Advisor: Thomas E. Patterson, Harvard Kennedy School


The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s 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. In addition, the newspapers 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.


Thousands of news articles have been written over the past several years about the practice that has come to be known as “waterboarding.”1 The New York Times, for example, mentions waterboarding in over 150 articles in 2007 and 2008 alone. Even before the current debate, however, waterboarding appeared with some regularity in the news throughout the 20th century, from the Philippine insurgency to World War II to the Vietnam War. In addressing waterboarding, for more than 70 years prior to 9/11, American law2 and major newspapers consistently classified waterboarding as torture. However, since the story began receiving significant media attention in 2004, following the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and revelations of waterboarding by the United States, media sources appear to have changed their characterization of the practice. Documenting the extent of the discrepancy between the pre–9/11 consensus that waterboarding was torture and the post–9/11 media treatment of the practice is an important first step to explaining how and why this occurred.

This study seeks to quantify the treatment provided to waterboarding before and after 9/11 by reviewing coverage of the practice in the nation’s four widest‐circulating newspapers. Based on our initial review of media reporting and some secondary literature, we hypothesized that the tone taken toward waterboarding by major newspapers might be somewhat more lenient in the post–9/11 era, particularly after the Bush administration authorized the practice and fear of terrorism was widespread among the public. What we found, however, through our review of thousands of articles in major newspapers, was a dramatic shift in coverage away from nearly a century of practice recognizing waterboarding as torture. This study provides details on the nature of this transformation through an exhaustive examination of over a century of reporting by the nation’s leading newspapers.

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