The Atimonan incident: Shootout or massacre?

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
– George Orwell

Gunther Kress, a professor at the University of London, once said that reporting is “mediation” and that attempts to “reconstruct” an event involve language.

In his essay “Linguistic and Ideological transformations in news reporting,” Kress said words “represent categorizations of the world from a point of view.” Great stuff.

In short, a writer’s choice of words can present an interpretation of an event and reflect a point of view that may be imposed upon readers.

Unfortunately, some media outfits were a bit careless in their choice of words when reporting about the bloody Atimonan incident, which left 13 people dead. In trying to help their audience make sense of the chaos, they might have added to the confusion.

The reckless use of loaded words encourages premature conclusions ahead of the completion of the investigation. Worse, it can also reflect bias and deprive one side a chance at a fair shake.

For instance, GMA News Online and BusinessMirror used the word “massacre” to describe the incident–a view espoused by the victims’ kin but is biased against those who insist that it was a legit “shootout.”

GMA Massacre 1 GMA Massacre 2 BM MASSACRE

The Scribner Bantam English dictionary defines “massacre” as the “merciless, indiscriminate slaughter of many people.” Forensic experts, not the media, should determine whether the Atimonan incident was indeed a massacre.

Others used “shootout,” which is favorable to the checkpoint team accused of violating standard operating procedures. Scribes at GMA News Online seem confused since they used both the words “massacre” and “shootout.”

Shootout is defined by Scribner Bantam as a “shooting affray between two gangs or between a gang and the police usually continued until one side gives up.”


Even the ABS-CBN late night newscast Bandila used the word “shootout” in reporting about the incident. (Watch: Gold behind Quezon incident?)

Some news organizations did the right thing when they chose neutral words like “shooting” or “incident.”

Others chose to place the word “shootout” inside quotation marks or after the word “alleged” (or its Filipino equivalent of “sinasabing” or “umano”).


(Watch: 24 Oras: NBI, siniyasat na ang lugar kung saan naganap ang umano’y shootout sa Atimonan noong Linggo)

Note that seems to have learned its lesson since the article that used the neutral word “incident” was uploaded almost two hours (Jan. 15, 4:56 p.m.) after the one that used “shootout” (Jan. 15, 3:05 p.m.).

We just hope that the improper use of words was just an honest mistake and was not meant to influence the investigation.

By the way, at least three news outfits claimed that the story on the leaked police fact-finding report was their exclusive, making us wonder if they have their own meaning for the word.

But for sure, two of them are making false claims. Be the judge:


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