A loaded term with no place in today's river-landing coverage

The salient fact of this afternoon’s Hudson River water landing is that it involved no casualties. So far, US Airways Flight 1549’s 153 passengers and crew have survived—and the majority of people who emerged from the chilly waters this afternoon, shaken and shocked but intact, seem to be physically unscathed.

This is a story that, considering how tragic its outcome could have been, has a happy ending.

So the word “crash”—which literally means violent collision, and figuratively implies much, much worse—really has no place in the coverage of the US Airways story. On the one hand, it’s an inaccurate depiction of this afternoon’s water landing (which was hard, according to passenger interviews, but nothing worse). On the other, the panic and fear inherent in the word—particularly when it’s used in relation to the word “plane”—miss the main point of this story completely. “Crash” suggests death, when the lede, here, is survival.

To many, that’s an obvious point. Online, in particular, the coverage of this afternoon’s breaking news—coverage that requires the act of writing, which in turn requires some degree of thoughtfulness—has featured a conspicuous lack of the word “crash.” The Washington Post’s write-up, headlined “US Airways Plane Goes Down in Hudson River,” doesn’t use the word once, choosing instead the more accurate—and more palliative—terms “went down” and “controlled landing in the water”:

A US Airways flight from LaGuardia Airport in New York went down in the Hudson River this afternoon, and rescuers moved quickly to remove passengers from the plane.

Authorities said there were no fatalities.

Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 with nearly 150 passengers on board, appeared to make a controlled landing in the water shortly after takeoff from New York bound for Charlotte, N.C.

The New York Times chose an even more things worked out fine tone in its write-up, headlined “Jet Ditches in Hudson; All Are Said Safe”:

A US Airways jetliner with 148 passengers and 5 crew members plunged into the icy Hudson River on Thursday afternoon five minutes after taking off from LaGuardia Airport, and a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration said everyone on board escaped safely.

Moments after the plane, a twin jet Airbus A320 bound for Charlotte, N.C., landed on the river near the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, at least a half-dozen small craft rushed to aircraft to rescue the freezing passengers and crew.

All in all: Pretty sober. Pretty reassuring. Pretty accurate.

Not so cable. Here’s just a small sampling, courtesy of the transcript database TVEyes, of the coverage TV news provided this afternoon:

MSNBC: “You will see a lot written about this crash as a miracle.”
CNN: “Brian Todd is taking a look at what apparently was the cause of the crash: birds.”
Fox: “This pilot is a walking miracle himself, if he survived this plane crash.”
CNN: “The crash happened in the Hudson River around 48th Street, but the plane is now drifting or being towed, that’s unclear, moving down the Hudson River.”
MSNBC: “…one of four here said to be prepared to care for any of the survivors of this crash.”
Fox: “The FBI is saying it has no information that this New York plane crash—that this crash was an act of terrorism.”
MSNBC: “Right now, looking at this live picture, we can report that New York waterway ferries helping make rescues following the plane crash in the Hudson River.”
CNN: “There are some amazing stories coming out of this crash.”

Et cetera.

Television coverage occasionally acknowledged the inappropriateness, in this context, of the word “crash”—“the landing or crash landing or splash landing,” CNN put it, indecisively, at one point; the plane “was going to make an intentional water landing, which I guess it did, but not a crash landing,” said MSNBC—and yet network anchors and commentators continued to use the word. Repeatedly. Precisely (again, per TVEyes) thirty-one times on the three major cable networks between 3:30 and 6:00 today.

Part of this is explainable by the fact that “crash,” as a word, simply flows more easily in speech than, say, “water landing”—and that it’s much more common than the NYT’s relatively obscure “ditch.” Cable’s “crash”-ophilia, in this instance, isn’t likely a case of conscious sensationalism so much as it’s a case of the unconscious: TV, in breaking-news coverage, traffics in spur-of-the-moment commentary from its narrators, and therefore is more susceptible than print to the vagaries of human emotion. (Were I talking to my friends about this afternoon’s event, I’d call it a crash; were I writing about it for public consumption, I would not.)

That’s an explanation, though—not an excuse. Any event that combines the terms “plane” and “New York City” and “crash” is bound to create panic, even if, in the next moment, the real situation—apparently-casualty-free water landing—is revealed. Those relating the story of that event, therefore, have an even greater responsibility than they usually do to be both accurate and sensitive in their narratives. Here’s yet another area where TV news can take a cue from its fellows in print: before you share information with the public…choose your words carefully.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.