As the Huffington Post's Jack Mirkinson points out:
|Waterboarding became perhaps the most notorious method of torture practiced by American interrogators in the years after September 11th.|
Interestingly, while the Post has, like most mainstream outlets, typically been reluctant to call methods such as waterboarding "torture" when it was practiced by Americans, the paper had no apparent problem calling what ISIS did to Foley "torture."
"A second person familiar with Foley’s time in captivity confirmed Foley was tortured, including by waterboarding," the Post wrote.
Still, the paper has not followed the New York Times in vowing to use the word "torture" more firmly in its articles.
Some of the research that I and Sara Oelke are publishing may shed some insights. One of our experiments was a replication of an experiment reported by Crandall et al (2009). The main difference between the work of Crandall et al (2009) and our particular experiment is that in one of our treatment conditions, the scenario describing such practices as waterboarding portrayed Middle Eastern soldiers as the interrogators and Americans as victims. What we found was that our participants in that particular treatment condition showed significantly lower attitudes toward the use of torture than in the control condition, in which the interrogators were American soldiers.
In the case of Middle Eastern soldiers - or in this case ISIS militants - we can use insights from research on in-group/out-group effects and Terror Management Theory to explain the negative attitudes. Not only are ISIS militants an out-group, but they are an out-group that poses (at least in perception) an existential threat. Behaviors that we might ordinarily accept when performed by fellow in-group members may be viewed as unacceptable when conducted by out-groups under those circumstances.
Although our research was not intended to address the language used by mass media outlets, our findings would be consistent with the phenomenon noted above. As Gronke et al (2012) observed, Americans are pretty ambivalent about torture, and generally don't look at it favorably (except under very limited circumstances). Knowing that, we might expect media outlets to take care to avoid using terms like torture to describe actions committed by our own troops. Knowing that Americans definitely disapprove of torture by others, our mass media outlets may feel less constrained in describing actions such as waterboarding thusly when committed by the likes of ISIS.
Benjamin, A. J., Jr., & Oelke, S. E. (in press). Framing effects on attitudes toward torture. Kommunikáció, Média, Gazdaság.
Crandall, C. S., Eidelman, S., Skitka, L. J., & Morgan, G. S. (2009). Status quo framing increases support for torture. Social Influence, 4, 1-10.
Gronke, P., Rejali, D., Drenguis, D., Hicks, J., Miller, P., & Nakayama, B. (2010). U.S. Public Opinion on Torture, 2001–2009. PS: Political Science & Politics, 43, 437-444.