As NPR reports about the crash of a Germanwings passenger jet and the deaths of all 150 people on board, one of the words editors are weighing carefully is “suicide.”
Investigators have said they believe co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately flew the plane into a mountain in the French Alps.
Suicide, Websters New Word College Dictionary says, is the act of “killing oneself intentionally.”
But Merriam-Webster elaborates: suicide is “the act of killing yourself because you do not want to continue living.” That introduces the idea that the person’s state of mind and motivation are important. It strikes us that it’s not possible at this point — and may never be — to know what Lubitz was thinking.
Then there’s this: As Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said this week, when someone is responsible for so many lives, “it’s more than suicide,” if Lubitz is to blame for their deaths.
For now, as Weekend Edition Saturday‘s “Word Matters” conversation explores, NPR is avoiding the word “suicide” when characterizing what Lubitz is thought to have done. There’s more about our reasoning posted here.
Mark Memmott is NPR’s standards and practices editor. He co-hosted The Two Way from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014.
Hear more conversations in this series: Word Matters.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When huge stories break, reporters have to be careful about the language they use and how it may define a story. This week that word has been suicide after the crash of Germanwings flight 9525. French, German and airline officials have said the co-pilot brought the plane down intentionally. Can you call that suicide? Joining us is Mark Memmott, NPR standards and practices editor. Mark, thanks so much for being with us.
MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: Glad to be here.
SIMON: By Thursday, investigators were saying that the co-pilot’s actions were deliberate, but neither the investigators or the officials nor NPR have called it a suicide. Why not?
MEMMOTT: Well, we always want to be factual. The best thing we think is to focus on credible reports, avoid speculation, be precise with our language. And the word suicide – yes, it’s about intentionally killing oneself, but some dictionary definitions go further. Merriam-Webster, for instance, adds that suicide is the act of killing yourself because you do not want to continue living. In the early stages of the investigation, we couldn’t know what that man in the cockpit wanted or what he was thinking. And then there’s this – the word just seems inadequate. A chief executive of Lufthansa put it this way – when one person is responsible for 150 lives, it is more than suicide.
SIMON: Is there a precedence you look to in this case?
MEMMOTT: Yes, our colleague Scott Newman reported earlier this week since the mid-1970s there’ve been at least eight similar cases. You might remember the October ’99 crash of EgyptAir flight 990, south of Nantucket Island – more than 200 people died. Investigators concluded one of the pilots intentionally brought down the jet, but they did not use the word suicide because they couldn’t reach a conclusion about his intentions, his state of mind.
SIMON: A number of people might be thinking, as they listen to us, we routinely refer to suicide bombers. And after all, these are people who kill other people with actions in which they know they will knowingly also kill themselves. So what’s different about this case?
MEMMOTT: Well, in those other cases, the word is being used as an adjective. And the two words together do convey a great deal of information about what had happened. But I should note that the phrase suicide bomber can be problematic, and I want to be very careful with what I say next. I am not suggesting anything about what happened aboard the Germanwings jet, but, especially when information is scant, it’s important to remember that what seems obvious may not be. For instance, there is evidence that some of those who have been called suicide bombers have been forced to or tricked into carrying explosives into buildings and crowds. Should they be called suicide bombers? I don’t think so. I don’t think most people would. And I know I’m a nag on this topic. It’s usually best to avoid labels, and the phrase suicide bomber is a label. Unless you’re sure those labels apply, stick to the facts, be precise with your words, choose them carefully.
SIMON: And at the same time ’cause we’re speaking in the middle, obviously, of a breaking news event in a news cycle, the use of language is under review as more facts become known.
MEMMOTT: Always. You know, as investigators continue, they may get evidence. There may be something on the recordings. They’ve said there isn’t, but there may be something else. We may learn more, and it may indeed conclude that there was a suicide involved here, but it looks more like a mass murder, doesn’t it?
SIMON: Mark Memmott, NPR standards and practices editor, and you can write to him at word matters – all one word – at NPR.org. Thank you, Mark.
MEMMOTT: You’re welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.