The public editor for The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a wonderful piece last month about how word selection can mislead readers. One case she cited was the video of football player Ray Rice hitting Janay Palmer, then his girlfriend and now his wife. A Times article had called their interaction an “altercation,” and Sullivan wrote:
An altercation seems like something you might witness on the subway when too many passengers are jammed onto the 1 train: a few harsh words and a mild shove. In other words, it seemed like a significant understatement for Mr. Rice’s violent assault on Ms. Palmer.
The dictionary cited by Sullivan calls an “altercation” “a heated, sometimes violent, quarrel, or conflict”; the dictionary favored by The Times, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, is softer, saying an “altercation” is ” an angry or heated argument,” with less violent connotations.
Tone is set in many ways, with word choice being the most basic. “Young dog” and
“puppy” mean the same thing, but “puppy” conjures a softer image than “young dog.” (And, as we’ve warned before, remember to not stretch too far for synonyms.) In the Rice case, “altercation” does seem too soft; “incident” also seems too mild. “Confrontation” might have been more appropriate, or simply “an argument that ended when Rice punched Palmer, knocking her unconscious.”
Think, too, of the change in imagery if “punched” is replaced with “hit,” “struck,” or “beat.” Connotations matter.
Other words favored by journalists carry connotations that affect reader perception of the event being described. The Associated Press Stylebook says that a “mishap” is a “minor misfortune,” adding, “People are not killed in mishaps.” Yet many news reports do as this one did: “As a community copes with the loss of a beloved mother and friend in a bus mishap, the circumstances of how she died are under investigation.” Even worse was the headline “4 dead, 34 hurt in mishap,” on a news report in the Philippines.
“Mishap” is “an unlucky or unfortunate accident,” the fifth edition of WNW says. And while something that causes an unexpected death is certainly both unlucky and unfortunate, it is so much more. A “mishap” might be a light pole that falls and blocks traffic; if it hits a car and kills the driver, it is more tragic than unfortunate.
Being aware of connotations allows a writer to convey more impact: “Crash” is more vivid and maybe even more accurate than “accident” or “collision,” for example, and certainly better than “mishap.” An “accident” implies happenstance and some lack of responsibility, not violence, and as we’ve said before, traditional journalism says a “collision” can only be between two moving objects, though there’s no good reason to limit it that way.
When was the last time you heard anyone call the police to say their neighbors were having an “altercation” that resulted in a “mishap” that left one of them dead? Only journalists seem to talk that way.