THE ACCIDENT STORY
LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Identify the structure of the accident story and the methods used to gather accident news.
Five sailors are killed when one falls asleep at the wheel of his car after a weekend liberty.
A young Navy ensign dies in a flaming plane crash when something goes wrong with his jet during a routine training hop.
A Marine accidentally shoots a buddy with a gun he did not think was loaded.
An airman crosses an aircraft flight line and walks into the blades of a spinning propeller.
A civilian painter plunges to his death from a threestory Navy building when the lines in a scaffold break.
An explosion at a base facility kills 15 people and injures 35 others.
A Navy dependent child dies in an ambulance after drinking something from the family's medicine cabinet.
Accidents and disasters such as these take hundreds of lives each year. In addition to destroying life and property, they cause untold pain, misery and suffering to the victims' friends and relatives.
Yet, despite the undesirability of this type of news from the Navy's viewpoint, covering and writing accident stories is part of your job (fig. 3-5).
The following is an important tenet of Navy public affairs: Accident news cannot be avoided or withheld, and it must be released. The amount of information released varies with security and next of kin considerations.
Accidents can happen anytime and anywhere. Because they are unpredictable, unfortunate and undesirable as a source of news, the JO who covers and writes accident stories must be especially careful in handling them.
Accidents involve both life and death. They may cause human suffering, heartache and anxiety. Also, because accidents sometimes result from carelessness or negligence, they may injure reputations or lead to disciplinary action. A careless word or phrase in an accident story may cause great damage to the Navy, to individuals involved and to the careless writer. Therefore, accuracy is of utmost importance in the accident story.
In collecting information for a story, the journalist must be careful to avoid gossip and conjecture. You must be able to seek out proper authorities and get your information right the first time. You may not have the opportunity to verify it later.
You must stick to the concrete facts, resist any temptation to hide or cover up legitimate news, maintain high standards of good taste and, above all, be familiar with security restrictions and other limitations. You must know what to release and whatnot to release. Never will your abilities as a JO be put to a more exacting test.
In any accident where a number of persons are killed or injured, the quickest and simplest way of writing the story is to use the accident/disaster story structure shown in figure 3-6. This structure is adaptable to all types of accidents and enables you to get the most important facts into the beginning of the story.
The lead of an accident story introduces the reader to the basic facts in the situation by summarizing the five Ws and H (who, what, when, where, why and how). Consider this example: "Two San Diego sailors were killed and three others seriously injured today when their automobile blew a tire and smashed into a tree on Highway 80, five miles east of El Cajon."
Note that the lead answers all of the five Ws, but does not elaborate on any of them. The most important
Figure 3-6. - Accident/disaster story structure.
facts in any accident story are the number and identities of the casualties and the cause of the accident. This lead immediately satisfies the reader's initial curiosity about these facts, but more detailed explanations are saved for the body of the story.
Since five people are involved in this accident, it would not be practical to list their names and complete identities in the lead. Therefore, they are included in the next segment of the story.
The casualty list contains the names, ranks or ratings, ages, next of kin, hometown addresses and other pertinent information available on the dead and injured. A casualty list for the above lead might be presented in the proceeding manner (listing should be in alphabetical order to facilitate readers in scanning the list for known names):
Seaman Apprentice David K. Becker, 19, son of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel M. Becker of 821 Sherman Dr., St. Louis, Mo.
Seaman Jackson B. Painter, 22, son of Mr. and Mrs. Carl H. Painter of 680 Deamond St., Elmsdale, R. I., driver of the car.
Seaman Apprentice Bruce J. Burns, 22, son of Mr. and Mrs. Morgan J. Bums of Route 7, Nashville, Term., broken arms, shock.
Fireman Milton M. Jackson, 20, son of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph J. Jackson of 4210 Florida Ave., Lexington, Ky., skull fracture, internal injuries.
Engineman Third Class John C. Stole, 21, son of Mr. and Mrs. Alton H. Stole of 4109 American Ave., Long Beach, Calif., compound fractures, internal injuries.
The dead are always identified first in the casualty list, followed by the injured
In identifying the victims, it is again emphasized that all pertinent information related to them be included in the list. A newspaper near San Diego might use only the victims' names, ages and rates. The parents' names and hometown addresses might be cut because they have no local news value.
The wire services, however, would want all the information. A story like this would be picked up and served to newspapers in the victims' hometowns. Names of the parents and their addresses are important. By including all the information in your releases, you leave its use up to the discretion of the media. It may also save you the trouble of later answering queries for additional information. Also, note that the driver of the car has been identified among those killed and that specific injuries have been listed for those injured. Most newspapers follow this practice. This eliminates the need for cluttering up the body of the story with these details later.
If there are 10 or more casualties, the recommendation is that you place their names separately at the end of the story. The newspaper can treat the list as a sidebar or run the names in an adjoining box. Too many names in the casualty list cause a big break between the lead and the body, interfering with the story's progress.
The use of a casualty structure has two distinct advantages for the newspaper. First, this treatment gives each name more prominence in the story because of the typographical arrangement. Each victim is listed separately. The reader does not have to ferret out their names from one long paragraph. The reader merely runs down the list quickly to see if there is anybody the reader knows.
Second, the casualty list allows for easier handling in both the editorial department and the composing room.
Let us say the previous story appeared in the first edition of a newspaper. By the time the fourth edition of the paper is ready to go to press, one of the more seriously injured victims dies.
If the casualty structure is used, a complete revision of the story is not necessary. The editor makes a few minor changes in the lead and body of the story, then moves the name from the "injured" heading up to the "dead" heading in the casualty list.