Saturday, August 30, 2014

When out-group members torture:

Friday morning, I was catching up on my news blogs prior to heading to the office, and found this little tidbit at Daily Kos:

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.
So, when Americans practice waterboarding, US papers are reluctant to refer to it as torture, but when, say ISIS militants practice waterboarding, then it is okay to describe the practice as torture. What's up with that?

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. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

On using Wikipedia

I think the following paragraph by Dan Gillmor regarding the proper use of Wikipedia should be required reading for students:
Wikipedia is a fabulous place to start when you want to learn about any number of things. But it’s also the worst place to stop if you plan to use the information anywhere else (a term paper or dinner party, much less a newspaper) or base an important decision on what you’ve read. I’ve stopped there when, for example, I wanted to refresh my memory about plot developments in a favorite TV series that’s back for a new season. But if I ever wanted to write about that series in a public venue, you can bet that I’d double-check to ensure I got my facts straight.

As a rule, I prohibit students from citing Wikipedia entries as references in written assignments, as Wikipedia is not a website for scholarship. It can be a useful starting point, however, and as long as one follows up any scholarly materials cited in a Wikipedia entry for aggression, for example, then one is on the way to having the materials necessary to craft an acceptable manuscript. Of course, I would also strongly recommend poring through the appropriate EBSCO databases in addition to examining the sources cited in a Wikipedia entry.