In this map provided by the Malaysian government, the red lines show potential areas where the plane might have been tracked.
In this map provided by the Malaysian government, the red lines show potential areas where the plane might have been tracked.

It’s been 11 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared as it carried passengers who were expecting to arrive in Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on a March 8 red-eye trip. Upon takeoff, the flight carried 239 people, including passengers and crew. The Flight 370 speculation industry has churned out all manner of survival scenarios.

It’s enough to set up a verb-tense problem when discussing the people aboard Flight 370.

In a graphic accompanying its March 15 news story on the missing jetliner, The Washington Post went with the present tense: “Of the 239 people on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370, almost two-thirds are Chinese. Nearly 30 percent of the passengers are in their 30s. The youngest travelers are 2 years old; the oldest is 79.”

Compare that treatment to how the BBC described the passengers in this feature:

The 12 crew members were all Malaysian. … There were 227 passengers, including 153 Chinese and 38 Malaysians, according to the manifest. Seven were children. Other passengers came from Iran, the US, Canada, Indonesia, Australia, India, France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands.

CNN goes with the present tense: “The youngest is 2, the oldest 76. Five passengers haven’t seen their fifth birthdays. They are engineers, an artist and a stunt man, along with Buddhist pilgrims, vacationers and commuters. To those who wait for them, they are fathers, mothers, children, soulmates and the dearest of friends.” The Associated Press (via Washington Post) goes with past tense: “There were 12 crew and 227 passengers on the Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared about 40 minutes into a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8. They were from far-flung parts of the world: 14 nationalities that included New Zealanders, Iranians, Americans and Indonesians. Two thirds of the passengers were from China.”

A survey of various news outlets on this tension has yielded little on-the-record feedback. As they scramble to break tidbits of news on the flight and segregate legitimate speculation from just-blatant nonsense, they apparently haven’t given much thought to verb-tense considerations. Of course, journalists have long distinguished themselves for idiocy on the general topic of verb tenses and conjugation, so the Erik Wemple Blog draws little in the way of conclusions from the discrepancies cited above.

Yet we’d like to conclude with a plug for referring to the passengers and crew in the present tense. Absent evidence that they’ve perished, that’s a formulation that’s both hopeful and journalistic.

UPDATE 6:20 p.m.: Washington Post Foreign Editor Douglas Jehl passes along these words:

As a general practice, we’re reluctant to refer to people in the past tense if it hasn’t been confirmed that they are dead. Jesse Lewis, who heads the newsroom’s multiplatform desk, notes that even though it’s likely there are no survivors, we’re inclined to avoid past tense to describe the passengers aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight there’s a clearer picture of what happened. As my colleague Bill Branigin points out, though, the best way around the conundrum may be to rely on other constructions. We might note, for example, that nearly two-thirds of those listed on the passenger manifest were Chinese, or that the plane vanished with 239 passengers and crew aboard.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.