As Somber Anniversaries Approach, A Reminder About Superlatives

Feb 7, 2019
Originally published on February 7, 2019 11:03 am

Gerry Holmes' note this week about Parkland anniversary coverage included an important reminder that we want to reinforce.

Superlatives such as "first," "worst" and "deadliest" should be avoided or only used after careful consideration, rigorous fact-checking and in moderation.

One reason is simple. As we've said many times, we're bound to be wrong. Superlatives are among our most common sources of mistakes.

But there are also these factors:

- What happened is bad enough. We don't want it to seem as if we're sensationalizing the news.

- We know about the contagion effect — that someone might see reports about the "deadliest" such incident and decide to do something even "worse."

- We should bear in mind that to those who survived or lost loved ones, it's disturbing to hear that what happened to them isn't as bad in some way as what happened to others.

What to do, then?

- Hit pause. Ask whether it's even important to include the superlative.

- Think it through. What makes one such mass shooting worse than others? The number of deaths alone? The number of deaths and injuries? The killer's motive? The method? The answers may lead to a decision to avoid the superlative altogether because there just isn't a satisfactory measure.

- Consider carefully how to frame any such reference. In the headline? Probably not. In an introduction? That might feel too sensationalistic.

This is a recurring issue. After the Parkland anniversary there are other such tragedies to recall. April 20 marks 20 years since Columbine.

One language note: Please remember that 'First Anniversary' Is OK; 'One-year Anniversary' Is Not.

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