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Preferred words

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

One of the most common themes in the Public Editor's inbox is a listener note questioning a word or phrase choice. Today, we respond to two such notes.

In both cases, NPR journalists connected to the stories agreed that the audience members made legitimate points. Read on to see why.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

'Accident' vs. 'crash'

Jon Naser wrote on Sept. 13: I'd like to ask about NPR's guidelines about the word 'accident,' especially as related to auto accidents. From the story today: "The number of fatal auto accidents jumped sharply in late 2020 and early 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While accident rates have since declined, they remain higher than they were before the pandemic, which contributes to the rising cost of insurance." This [Forbes] article goes into detail about the value of using neutral, accurate wording. From the article, "In 2016, the Associated Press Style Guide changed to encourage journalists to use 'crash, collision, or other terms' instead of 'accident.'"

NPR's report on rising auto insurance premiums used the word "accident" a few times.

On Morning Edition, chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley said, "the number of deadly accidents jumped sharply in late 2020 and early '21." His accompanying digital story reads, "The number of fatal auto accidents jumped sharply in late 2020 and early 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration."

We spoke with Horsley about his reporting and the language he chose.

When August data showed that auto insurance prices had jumped more than 19% in the last year, far outpacing overall inflation, he decided to report on it for his monthly story on inflation, he said. Auto collisions are among the key drivers of the price hikes.

Horsley used the word "accidents" when he highlighted data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But the term used in the analysis was "motor vehicle traffic crashes."

Horsley said he hadn't given much thought to the word "accident" when reporting the story and didn't know of specific guidance about the term.

The Associated Press Stylebook, which provides language guidance to journalists, says the words "accident" or "crash" are both generally acceptable to describe vehicle collisions and wrecks. "But when negligence is claimed or proven, avoid 'accident,' which can be read as a term exonerating the person responsible." The Stylebook suggests using terms like "crash" or "collision." NPR doesn't have additional guidance on these terms.

Horsley used "accidents" to refer to crash rates rather than individual incidents, which follows AP's guidance. But he said the letter writer made a good point, especially because that part of the story described an uptick in risky driving. The term "crash" or "wreck" instead would have been "certainly appropriate and probably preferable," he said.

Horsley told us that the language evolution away from the term "accident" is reasonable. He compared it to the language change he's noticed around drunk driving.

"When I was a kid, people said 'drunk driving accidents,' and we as a society concluded that when a crash results from drunk driving, that's not an accident. That's negligence, and should be treated as such," Horsley said.

"All the language we use has significance in the way it can help to shape social attitudes one way or another," he continued. "As journalists, I think it's incumbent on us to be thoughtful about that. I'm a little embarrassed to say it didn't even enter my mind as I was writing the story, but next time I'm writing a story about car crashes I'll definitely give it more thought."

Because of the implications of the word "accident," we find it preferable to use words such as "crash" or "collision" to describe car wrecks. — Emily Barske Wood

COVID vaccine feelings

Liv Byron wrote on Sept. 13: [In this coverage of new COVID shots,] I was surprised to see that an editor allowed the [third] sentence in this story lede: "If it feels like everyone you know has COVID, you're not alone. Cases are on the rise, and so are hospitalizations and deaths. So the federal government's release of new, updated COVID boosters feels like good timing." There is no evidence cited that the release of these new COVID boosters "feels like good timing." My small anecdotal experience would show a wide variety of how this news is being received. ... This broad statement in the reporting feels like subliminal editorializing. Telling readers what they "feel," when in fact people have a wide variety of reactions to this news.

This story asked and answered 10 common questions Americans may have about the new COVID shots, including what federal health officials think about them, what protections they might offer, who medical advisers believe should get one and more.

We contacted the Science Desk journalists behind the story to ask about the "feels like good timing" phrase in the lead paragraph. Jane Greenhalgh, a Science Desk senior producer and editor, replied on behalf of the group.

"We wrote the intro to our FAQ as a conversational hook, hoping to entice readers into the story," Greenhalgh wrote in an email. "However, we concede the point that it would have been more accurate to say, 'for some people it feels like good timing.'"

Being conversational is important for audience engagement, but accuracy should take precedence. Also, given the diversity of feelings about COVID vaccines, it's best to avoid implying that everyone has the same perspective. — Emily Barske Wood

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

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