Reporting on the deaths of American service members can be challenging. It’s a sensitive issue that has to blend military and civilian lingo with sensitivity and grammatical correctness.
Many news organizations use the term “troops” as a generic reference to those who serve in the armed forces. It's most often used when the branch of service is unknown or when the story involves members from multiple branches.
Time and space restrictions also influence writers’ choice in terminology. “Troops” is shorter than “service member.”
But several people have sent emails complaining that NPR’s reference to individual soldiers as a “troop” or “troops” is unclear.
Listener Pamela Blom of Washington D.C. emailed that using the term “troops” to describe the deaths of one or two soldiers is misleading. “ ‘Troops’ is plural, which usually means a group,” she wrote.
Blom is right. According to Merriam-Webster a “troop” is a group of soldiers.
Several other listeners said that referring to one or even five service members as “troops” depersonalizes them, especially if they were killed.
Gregory Bruce of Far Rockaway, NY, wrote that beginning a report with “seven troops were injured today” is unclear and raises the question: How many people are in each troop?
“This is just poor form,” he wrote.
All challenged NPR to refer more accurately to service members based on what branch they serve in: soldier (Army), Marine, sailor, or airman.
A search of NPR’s transcripts archives in the last six months found no on-air use of the word “troop” or “troops” as a noun to describe one service member. But it may have been used in the hourly Newscasts, which aren’t archived in a searchable database.
Senior producer David Pignanelli said Newscasts regularly use the word troops, though rarely in the way Blom mentioned.
“It’s doubtful we would say ‘five troops were killed today,’ ” Pignanelli wrote in an email. “We tend to use troops to describe a group without using numbers, unless those numbers are relevant to the story.”
The Associated Press stylebook — used by NPR and many other news organizations —says that when “troops” is used with a large number, it’s understood to mean individual soldiers. All Things Considered host Michele Norris demonstrated such use in a July 1 story:
“By the end of this summer, only 50,000 U.S. troops will be left in the entire country - a country that now finds itself at a crossroads.”
The AP also notes that it’s not correct to say “three troops were injured,” but does appear to approve the use of “troops” as a generic reference to the military. In the AP stylebook under the entry for “Marines” it says: “Use troops as a generic term if needed.”
Pignanelli explained that Newscasts use the word “troops” only to describe members of the Army, known as soldiers. “Marines are not soldiers; therefore they are not referred to as troops,” he said. “Members of the Navy are referred to as sailors and should never be referred to as soldiers or troops.”
It is not the military’s practice to refer to one individual as a troop, said Col. Dave Lapan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations.
Lapan said the Pentagon has no policy or media recommendation on how to refer to U.S. military personnel. He confirmed that using “troop” as a singular noun or “soldiers” to describe personnel outside of the Army is incorrect.
“A more accurate term is service members,” said Lapan. “There isn’t a universal way of doing it. It tends to be more preference. We [the military] recognize that the media at large uses soldiers in a generic sense.”
Former Army Times managing editor Robert Hodierne cautions against using the generic term “troops” and encourages specificity.
“Marines don’t like to be called troops,” he said. “If you’re reporting one death, be specific about the branch of service and say, ‘one soldier was killed’ or ‘one sailor’ or ‘one Marine.’ ”
NPR Managing Editor David Sweeney said NPR does that. NPR advises its staff to be as accurate as possible and identify personnel by branch. But what happens when personnel from more than one branch are involved in the story?
“That’s when it may be appropriate to use a more generic term like ‘military personnel,’ ” Sweeney explained
In a headline for a July 25 story on Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR referred to a missing U.S. Navy sailor as a soldier. It was quickly corrected. Listeners should note that Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen identified the sailors as “Navy personnel” on-air, as indicated in the transcript.
“My recommendation would be that NPR consistently use service member to avoid any problems,” said Alicia Shepard, NPR Ombudsman. “But if you are sure about what branch of the service, use that. NPR could minimize mistakes — and harm — by implementing a clear policy designed for reporters, hosts and writers to refer to when in doubt.”
Neason is the summer Ombudsman office intern. She graduated magna cum laude from St. John's University and produced this piece on food waste in America for Intern Edition.