Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media

Waterboard on display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Should waterboarding—the practice of simulating drowning and then reviving the victim—be considered torture?

Journalists and editors have grappled with this question hundreds of times since 2004, when revelations regarding U.S. interrogation methods revived the public debate about waterboarding.

In their paper, Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media, students from Harvard Law School and Harvard College examine how newspapers in the United States referred to waterboarding.

Neal Desai and his co-authors report that from the 1930s until 2003, waterboarding was commonly referred to as torture by American newspapers. However, from 2004 to 2008, these same papers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. More specifically, Desai and his team discovered that "[U.S.] newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator."