The Obama administration's lethal drone strikes are at their most morally objectionable when the CIA doesn't even know the identities of the people it is killing—a fact it obscures by dubbing all military-age males who are killed "militants."

Applied so loosely, the term is wildly misleading. Yet lots of news organizations deploy it in their coverage anyway, as Glenn Greenwald observes:

Like the U.S. drone program itself, this deceitful media practice continues unabated. “Drone strike kills at least four suspected militants in northwest Pakistan,” a Reuters headline asserted last week. The headline chosen by ABC News, publishing an AP report, was even more definitive: “U.S. Drone in Northwest Pakistan Kills 6 Militants.” In July, The Wall Street Journal‘s headline claimed: “U.S. Drone Strike Kills Five Militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan.” Sometimes they will turn over their headlines to “officials,” as this AP report from July did: “Officials: US drone kills 7 militants in Pakistan.”

What I'd like to add is an easy fix for style guides: Use "human" or "person" instead. For example:

  • Drone strike kills at least four people in northwest Pakistan
  • U.S. Drone in Northwest Pakistan Kills 6 Humans
  • Officials: US drone kills 7 men in Pakistan

It's that easy.

The only alternative, if one is to maintain accuracy, is a description like one that appeared a year ago in The New York Times: "Most of the dead appeared to be people suspected of being militants linked to Al Qaeda, according to tribal leaders in the area, but there were also reports that several civilians had been killed."

In other words, the newspaper couldn't confirm that they were militants, or even that they were suspected of being militants—only that they appeared to be suspected of being militants. That adds little clarity. When using the official frame while retaining accuracy is that much of a struggle, why not just abandon "militant"? Say how many people died, that they haven't been identified, and that we don't know if they're among the hundreds of innocent humans killed by drones or not.

That approach is superior not just because it would reduce the number of people falsely labeled militants, but also due to larger problems with the label. As the Stanford and NYU law clinics explained in their collaborative 2012 report on drone warfare:

Media outlets tend to divide all those killed in drone strikes into just two categories: civilians or “militants.” This reflects and reinforces a widespread assumption and misunderstanding that all “militants” are legitimate targets... and that any strike against a “militant” is lawful ... The civilian/“militant” distinction is extremely problematic, however, from a legal perspective ... First, in most coverage of drone strike casualties, “militant” is never defined. The term’s use often implies ... that the killing of that person was lawful ... It is not necessarily the case that any person who might be described as a “militant” can be lawfully killed ... in order for an intentional lethal targeting to be lawful, a fundamental set of legal tests must be satisfied.

.... Depending on the applicable legal framework (but at the very minimum): the targeted individual must either be directly participating in hostilities with the US or posing an imminent threat that only lethal force can prevent. Thus, for instance, members of militant groups with which the US is not in an armed conflict are not lawful targets, absent additional circumstances. Further, simply being suspected of some connection to a “militant” organization ... is not alone sufficient to make someone a permissible target for killing.

All things considered, "militant" muddies more than it clarifies. All publications should abandon it anytime that little is know about who was killed by a drone strike.