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.”

Writing less like a journalist because that’s a thing for millennials?

If you know your writing is being consumed mostly online, probably on a phone screen, you’d be crazy not to  …

  • get right to the point
  • use short sentences
  • make brief lists. (See?)

OK, putting the important information first and writing concisely is not a new idea in journalism, but is digital writing simply adapting to new formats, or is there a generational change under way? I’m thinking about this because I am advising a blogger on retirement planning whose audience skews older. But anyone publishing news or commentary has to consider what the intended audience craves or tolerates.

Jim Brady, whose company runs an innovative local news site in Philadelphia called, told Digiday:  “We’ve consciously tried to make things sound less journalistic.” He said, “I really do think that the journalistic detachment has contributed to the indifference young people feel toward traditional journalism right now.”

Sites aimed at a young audience are more likely to use obscenities and texting-based acronyms, because … WTF? Their readers won’t be outraged or confused. That and some selective use of snark and irony help keep the voice and tone close to the everyday experience of the audience.

Buzzfeed has a style guide to keep its writers consistent, so they know apeshit is one word, butt-dial is hyphenated and nip slip is two words. But Buzzfeed has its limits: “Non-offensive, ‘casual-use’ profanity in cases where it’s warranted by the tone or subject matter of a post.”

Vice, one of the most successful media companies focused on youth, reportedly included this in its style guide for writers: “Keep it punchy, but avoid writing in an edgy voice like some people who wish they wrote for us tend to do.”

If being too loose or too edgy is just as much of a problem as being too detached, writers for the youth-oriented sites could try to be authoritative yet conversational. If that’s the course they are on, they are tweaking the acceptable language of journalistic story-telling not reinventing it. (Note that I am addressing only the writing, not choice of subject matter, which is a separate story.)

Regardless of whether you have readers who know “hack” as a verb or a noun, you don’t want to be a hack.

Journalists have mental checklists of facts and figures for each type of story. If a bus crashes, number of passengers, origin and destination, age of the bus, driver’s experience, time of day, weather, traffic conditions.

What makes journalistic writing tiresome is failure to limit the story to only the most relevant facts and figures. The jury is made up of nine women and three men? That may be relevant if the charge is rape. The indictment was 34 pages? Um, not sure anyone of any age would care except the clerk who has to make copies.

Here’s an example from a local newspaper story about a lawsuit resulting from a teenager’s suicide: The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages in excess of $15,000, the threshold for filing in the court. Writers who took the story to a national or global audience left out that mind-numbing detail and focused on the lawsuit’s underlying issue: whether a school district might share blame if it failed to enforce anti-bullying policies.

Some of the best journalism bogs down occasionally because writers are methodically attributing facts or documenting attempts to get comment. But even the youth-oriented sites are showing enough concern about standards that you’ll still be seeing that kind of “writing like a journalist” wherever you turn for professionally reported news.