Turning inner space into outer space

August 3, 2013

The term 'death toll' needs to be killed

It’s one of the most commonly used phrases in journalism — “death toll.”

Like a number on a giant scoreboard in the middle of an arena, it appears in every newsroom when tragedy strikes. It might be a train crash, a tornado or a war. But the first thing we want to know is how many people died. And this makes sense, of course, because the worst thing that can happen in any situation is the loss of human life. Without it, we are nothing.

And so the relentless and ominous death toll begins. We start with a preliminary number, perhaps an estimate, and go from there.

Sometimes the death toll from a disaster will take weeks to unfold. In the case of a war, it can take months or even years. It may reach the point where the death toll is only revised when thresholds of a thousand are reached. At certain point, the numbers become meaningless. What does it mean for 100,000 to be dead in a war? Every single one of those deaths is a tragedy for friends and family.

I won’t try to answer the philosophical questions involved here, but I can say unequivocally that referring to a “death toll” is an unnecessary trivialization — a habit we have fallen into for the sake of convenience in headline writing. “Death toll hits 46” is about as tight as it gets when it comes to writing — and it could be argued that we don’t have a duty to do anything more than inform. Why not leave it to others to interpret the meaning of the number.

If all you aspire to is commodity journalism then, sure, stick with the tried and true “death toll.” But we are living in an age where people expect more from journalism, especially if it’s journalism they’re actually willing to pay for. And aside from that, I suspect that deep down we expect more of ourselves as well. To that end we really need to stop treating human lives as nothing more than numbers on a Jumbotron.

I’m not gong to be so presumptuous as to prescribe a replacement term for “death toll.” We’re all smart enough to figure these things out on our own. But I do urge all of us to treat “death toll” the way we do any other cliché, with the realization that with a little effort we can almost always improve our writing by using words that more precisely fit the circumstances. Think about the context, think about why the number of dead is important to an understanding of what has happened.

A story about loss of life demands at least this much from us.