In this map provided by the Malaysian government, the red lines show potential areas where the plane might have been tracked.
A dated map of two possible paths for MH370; authorities have determined the plane took the southern route.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak yesterday stood before the world and proclaimed that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean. “This is a remote location far from any possible landing sites,” said Razak.

Sure enough. As the Los Angeles Times reported, search vessels and aircraft from various countries on Monday patted down an “area of about 20,000 square nautical miles in the south Indian Ocean looking for traces of Flight 370.” Vast as that is, it’s at least better circumscribed than last week’s search panorama, which authorities sketched with red lines delineating a wide-ranging northern route and a wide-ranging southern route.

Throughout this mystery-cum-tragedy, the search area — whatever its status on any given day — has stretched the ability of modern technology. Satellites and vessels and aircraft have been no match for expanses of ocean into which MH370 could have crashed and strewn debris. And in analyzing this lamentable state of affairs, experts and commentators have suggested that the good old needle-in-a-haystack cliché leaves us short of the descriptive imperatives of finding a jetliner in the southern Indian Ocean. As Miles O’Brien said on PBS NewsHour last week: “To say it’s a needle in the haystack is an understatement, I think.”

Correct. Just check the record:

Here’s Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, just this afternoon on CNN: “I heard it described earlier today… we’re not trying to find a needle in a haystack, we’re trying to find the haystack; I’d tell you we’re trying to find the farm that the haystack’s on right now.”

Perhaps Kirby was referring to this quote from Air Marshal Mark Binskin, Australia’s deputy defense chief: “We’re not searching for a needle in a haystack. We’re still trying to define where the haystack is.”

Many of the needle-in-a-haystack adaptations surface on CNN because finding MH370 coverage on CNN is most certainly not like trying to find a needle in a haystack.ThHere’s CNN’s Brooke Baldwin and guest Alistair Dove of Deep Sea News last Friday: “‘It is a terribly difficult place to search,’ says Alistair Dove, associate editor of Deep Sea News. He goes on [to]…say ‘it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack, but that haystack is on the dark side of the moon.’”

Robin Johnson in the Derby Evening Telegraph shows less flair for the dramatic, writing, “Ultimately, the secrets of Flight MH370 will be contained in its black box flight recorder. Until that is found, we will never truly know what happened — and finding it now will be like trying to locate a minutely-sized needle in a vast haystack.”

Former U.S. government accident investigator Alan Diehl, on Fox News’s “The Kelly File”: “But you know, we have talked about a needle in the haystack. Right now, we’re looking at a needle in Nebraska.”

NPR’s Robert Siegel on “All Things Considered”: “This is not just like finding a needle in a haystack. In this case, the haystack is vast and the needle could be moving.”

M. Sanjayan, chief scientist at Conservation International, as quoted in a CNN.com piece: “It isn’t like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s like looking for a needle in a needle factory. It is one piece of debris among billions floating in the ocean.”

In an interesting “NIH” variation, aviation expert Richard Quest said this on CNN last Thursday: “There is a merchant ship also involved in the search…It’s going to take some time to get people out there. The first search has come back unsuccessful. This is more than the needle in a hay stack. Maybe it’s a pitchfork or a dinner fork in the haystack.”

But look: There is hope for the under-siege turn of phrase. John Young, an official with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, is quoted in The Herald (Scotland) as saying, “A needle in a haystack remains a good analogy.”

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