Answer: This question has been raised since Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Russia’s attacks on his country as genocide earlier this month. Terms like “genocide” and even “insurrection” or “coup” have both colloquial definitions (what the public understands the term to mean) and legal definitions. Due to their duty to accuracy and also legal liability, news organizations will often only use such terms as their legal definition rather than wade into a grey area.
Thus, despite what the court of public opinion may deem Russia’s attacks, you’ll likely see news organizations only use “genocide” or “war crimes” in the context of quotes from world leaders until direct declarations or charges are made. For instance, yesterday the U.S. formally declared that Russian troops have committed war crimes.
The legal definition of genocide originates in international law, and if the U.S.’s recent acknowledgement of Myanmar's genocide of the Rohingya — nearly five years later — is any indication, its application to Ukraine may be far away. Philip Gourevitch at the New Yorker, however, recently made the case that calling Russia’s actions anything else, like “atrocities,” diminishes the enormity of Putin’s goals when time is of the essence to save lives.
It’s crucial that newsrooms use language that meets the moment and helps audiences understand our collective problems. That requires serious consideration of alternatives that both preserve journalistic ethics and accuracy and respect the urgency of the challenges ahead.