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Public editor: Why The Globe uses the term 'hunger strike'

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence speaks with journalists about her hunger strike in a teepee on Victoria Island in Ottawa Dec. 27, 2012.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

There have been a few questions from readers this week about language and usage.

Theresa Spence finished her political protest this morning, but she continues to be controversial. I heard from one reader this week who wondered why The Globe and Mail uses the term "hunger strike" when other newspapers say "fast" or "liquid diet".

The Globe and Mail editors have used the term "hunger strike" from the beginning, but also refer to exactly what Chief Theresa Spence says she is consuming. The term "hunger strike" denotes political protest, as do other terms, and several dictionary descriptions say it refers to not eating, refusing to eat or not eating enough to sustain life.

In my view, it was important to refer to what she said she was consuming and allow the readers to better understand the nature of her protest. "Fast" is a good description as well, but "liquid diet" can be misleading because it suggests a medical diet that could include many things. Collins Dictionary defines a hunger strike as "a voluntary fast undertaken, usually by a prisoner, as a means of protest". Merriam-Webster defines it as "refusal (as by a prisoner) to eat enough to sustain life" and Oxford Dictionaries define it as "a prolonged refusal to eat, carried out as a protest by a prisoner."

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Another reader asked why an article called the Malia Obama the "eldest" daughter when the Obamas have two, not three or more, daughters. The correct term should have been elder.

A staff member also raised the difference between the words Islamic and Islamist. Recently, The Globe incorrectly referred to hostage-takers in Algeria in a print headline and online story as "Islamic militants."

The headline should have said Islamist, which refers to political Islam and those who believe Islam is the model political and social system. Islamists can cover a broad range of political thought – at the extreme is an insistence on a religious state while moderates may advocate melding Islamic values and jurisprudence with pluralistic democracy.  Islamic is to be used just to describe the religious faith.

To share your perspective leave a comment below, or send me a note on this or any other subject at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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