A reader complained about the headline on an article about the United Nations report on the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. rebuts report on Guantanamo, saying:
“The word ‘rebut’ means to refute or disprove. The article cites no evidence put forward by U.S. officials to disprove or contradict the allegations in the UN report. Rather, the article states that U.S. officials ‘rejected’ the report, ‘blocked consideration of [ICRC] reports,’ ‘won't publicly discuss’ what has been done to prisoners in their control. This is not ‘rebuttal.’ Unless the headline writers and the reporter have all misunderstood the meaning of the term rebuttal, use of this term in this context is very disturbing. … To say that the US has ‘rebutted’ the UN's allegations of mistreatment of prisoners appears to be whitewashing at best.”
The reader is quite right that the strict meaning of rebut means to oppose an assertion while supplying supporting information. It would probably have been better for the headline to use the word reject, as the article does.
That said, there is a looser sense of rebut, meaning to dispute or oppose in reply. That loose senses of the word are common can be seen in the reader’s own letter and in dictionaries, where refute is given as a synonym of rebut. But to refute is a stronger term in its strictest sense; it means to disprove conclusively. Very few arguments are ever conclusively overturned, so we tend to avoid that term altogether.
Whether to allow a loose use of a word or to adhere to the strictest sense can be a difficult question of judgment for writers and editors, and there is always room for discussion. We take a hard line on imply/infer, despite entries in some dictionaries that register them as synonyms. As a previous posting pointed out, we have given ground on to host.
The reader had a concluding question, “Are headlines written at the Sun or are they just reprinted along with the stories from the other newspapers?”
For good or ill, our own copy editors write the headlines for the paper. When we are right, we stand by them. When we are wrong, we take our medicine.