Do writers choose the wrong word by accident?

Something is terribly wrong. A crash. A cloud of smoke or dust. If you are on the road and traffic has stopped, you’re probably thinking, “There has been an accident.” But if you are in a newsroom and know only that something seems to have crashed or blown up, you really have to think about what words to use. Mishap is usually to too weak and inconsequential to describe something that will make news, but calling it a disaster may be premature. Maybe accident?

Let’s see how that has played out recently.

Explosions at a warehouse in Tianjin, China in August 2015 eventually killed more than 120 people in what was widely reported as an accident, and not just by China’s official news agency.

China detained the owners of a hazardous-chemicals storage warehouse rocked by deadly explosions in Tianjin as authorities sought to discover the cause of the latest industrial accident to hit the country. — Bloomberg News.

It is it not uncommon for the news media to describe a disaster as an accident even if it is being investigated or prosecuted as a crime. That falls within one of the dicScreen Shot 2015-08-24 at 8.38.25 PMtionary definitions of accident: “an unpleasant and unintended happening, sometimes resulting from negligence, that results in injury, loss, damage, etc. (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). But somehow accident doesn’t feel like a neutral word, because it has a forgiving connotation. It skirts the issue of blame, like apologizing with a passive admission that “mistakes were made.”

When an underground explosion started a fire in a coal mine in Turkey in May 2014, killing 301 workers, The New York Times called it “Turkey’s worst mining accident.” In a one-year anniversary followup the newspaper quoted the widow of one of the victims as saying, “To call it an accident is sinful — it was coldblooded murder.” Lax enforcement of safety standards was at least a contributing cause to the high death toll even if the proximate cause of the tragedy was a transformer fire. Managers and inspectors were accused of negligence and put on trial in a case still dragging on.

A lot of tragedies involve complex sequences of events. In July 2013, an oil train derailed in Quebec, Canada, caught fire, exploded and destroyed more than 30 buildings, killing 47 people. Canadian media were still calling it an accident a year later when investigators documented failings including insufficient brakes, a bad engine repair and inadequate regulatory oversight.

The collapse of a building full of garment factories in Bangladesh that killed 1,129 people in 2013 eventually resulted in murder charges against 41 people. Regardless of the verdicts, the disaster will be forever enshrined on lists of “worst accidents.”

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