There was a flurry on social media after intelligence officials referred to Abdelhamid Abaaoud as the ‘mastermind’ of the Paris attacks.

By Sylvia Stead for the Globe and Mail

What’s in a word? More than it may seem. Journalists are constantly reminded that their audience cares greatly about how stories are told.

For example, there was a flurry on social media after intelligence officials referred to Abdelhamid Abaaoud as the “mastermind” of the Paris attacks. People objected to the word and wanted The Globe to ban it from descriptions of terror suspects. (The one in question died a few days later in a police raid.)

Some of the comments:

“He’s not a mastermind. He was a tiny-minded, cold-blooded predator with a dead heart and an evil soul.”

“It doesn’t take a genius to do much of this stuff. It just glorifies the bad guys.”

“He’s not a mastermind. He is a sick killer. Mastermind is a word used to describe someone who is an intellectual genius, not a terrorist.”

Of course, the backlash went beyond Globe readers, and included members of the media as well. While the attack was complex, said Jack Shafer, senior media writer with Politico, the Washington-based newspaper and website, “no true mastermind would brag about the results … Why can’t he be called something more mundane, like an organizer or a commander?”

U.S. television analyst Lawrence O’Donnell agreed, saying that to call terrorists masterminds is “exactly what they want. … Stop glorifying this homicidal manic.”

Dictionaries include several potential meanings for the word, but the most common involve something along the lines of “a person who originates or is primarily responsible for the execution of a particular idea, project or the like.” This person can be highly intelligent – “genius” is a synonym, yet so are commander and architect.

In this case, the context is more important: Mr. Abaaoud was seen by police as a criminal mastermind who had planned the attacks. That’s neither a compliment nor an insult – he was simply seen as the ringleader.

Continue reading this story on the Globe and Mail’s website, where it was first published.

Sylvia Stead is the Public Editor of the Globe and Mail.