Person Dies … Death Toll at One!

Zambia bus crash (

Zambia bus crash (

“Death toll” is one of those media phrases that bugs me. It’s overused. The informal threshold for use of “death toll” should be 10.

Death tolls can be informative by conveying the scale of a disaster. More than 235 people were killed in the Brazil nightclub fire, for example. A bus crash in Zambia killed 54 people, while 36 died in an explosion in Mexico. It’s impersonal, but gives us an accurate snapshot of a horrible occurrence.

When four motorists die in pileup on a Georgia highway, however, that’s not a death toll. It’s four people. Often, the headline writer is to blame. The Georgia story, in fact, doesn’t use “death toll” — it’s only the headline. Again, it’s accurate but note that a “Dublin couple” died in the crash. ‘Dublin couple among 4 dead in fiery tanker wreck’ is a better headline. It’s more personal. If I mentioned to my wife that I read about a terrible crash that killed a local couple, she wouldn’t respond by saying, ‘but what was the death toll?’

In India, there was a death toll when two people died in sectarian clashes. Two! A New York Daily News story unleashed the death toll for three people killed by a former police officer in Los Angeles.

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