Patterns of blame: How the media trivialises cyclist deaths

road traffic collision

Cyclists are treated lamentably treatment in the press. In his article about anti-cycling bias at the BBC, Peter Walker illustrates how poisonous and skewed the public narrative about everyday cycling has become, but this blinkered, over-generalised and fallacious media coverage takes an altogether darker turn when reporting cyclist deaths.

A recent study by University of South Florida has used a scientific technique called ‘critical discourse analysis’ to reveal substantial bias in media coverage of cycling deaths, which consistently suggests the deaths are acceptable and reflect an assumption that responsibility for safety lies with the cyclist.

Many of the patterns identified will be familiar to us on this side of the pond.

  • Reporters distance the driver from the death. Accounts commonly refer to the ‘car’ or ‘vehicle’ as the actor in the collision and in many cases, the driver’s name does not appear in the story at all.
  • Reporters often use passive construction to avoid singling out blame: “A cyclist was hit by a car,” rather than “John Smith struck the cyclist with his car.”
  • Media accounts treat each death as isolated, rather than part of a larger pattern with an identifiable set of causes. So-called episodic coverage frames cycling deaths as somehow acceptable, rather than part of a wider epidemic. These accounts typically reflect an assumption that responsibility for safety lies on the bicyclist – a narrative that removes blame from the motorist.
  • The authors of the research found that the socioeconomic status of the cyclist affected how likely they were implicitly blamed.
  • When the victim was poor, he or she was more likely to be characterised as being at fault.
  • Status wasn’t always apparent, but news reports often carried clues by referring to where a victim lived or his or her profession. Other “identity markers” included attire, gender, age, socioeconomic status.
  • In cases where the victim had more social capital, coverage was less likely to stigmatise. For example, family members were interviewed.

Exactly a year ago this weekend, a group of pedestrians in London were injured when a car careered of the road and onto the pavement. Within moments of the collision outside the Natural History Museum, the area was crawling with police armed response teams, hazardous material containment personnel and a helicopter was overhead. Within minutes, my iPad blinked with reports of the suspected terror attack and it continued for hours. It was not until later that day that the story was downgraded to a run-of-the-mill road ‘accident’. No extended opinion pieces about the threat to the lives of pedestrians on pavements up and down the country from being run down or from deadly pollution. No radio phone-ins about the effect that road danger has on our collective quality of life. And certainly no pronouncements from a transport minister on how immediate action is required to tackle this daily terror.

Why on earth does the media and wider society take so little interest in road danger? After all, it’s the very embodiment of the human interest story. We’ve made mention of court cases that have seen drivers who’ve killed or maimed children on the pavement walk away with extremely lenient fines. And yet these stories rarely make big news.

If a plane or a train crashes, the story makes headlines and the evening news. If a car ploughs onto a pavement and kills a child, it’s rarely described as a collision and most commonly an ‘accident’. When a ton of metal smashes into a person because a driver was speeding, distracted, drunk or on their phone it’s absolutely preventable. The language is important because words are powerful.

Thousands of lives would be saved and our quality of life would be improved immeasurably if we tackled road danger. Good journalism by those covering the violent deaths and life-changing injuries that occur every single day on our roads would be a good start.

 

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Comments

  1. Chris Johnson

    Reply

    I think most incidences of a cyclist being struck by a car (driven by XXXX) are reported as “a cyclist collided with a car” which deceitfully misleads the reader into thinking that the bicycle struck the car, not vice versa.

  2. Philip

    Reply

    cYcling is, statistically speaking, much more dangerous than it is generally perceived to be, and unfortunately many cyclists do not understand this, failing take appropriate measures to increase personal safety.

    cYcling fatalities and serious injuries in the UK are approximately 10% of road vehicle fatalities and serious injuries [circa 3,500 versus 35,000 per annum].

    However, when you consider that there are far fewer bicYcles on the road than motor vehicles, and the distances travelled by bicYcles compared to motor vehicles is a tiny fraction, the figures are shocking.

    However, the most “indulged” group of road users in the UK are motorcyclists.

    Despite comprising approximately 2% of road traffic they are (if my figures are correct) involved in 20% of fatalities. Think of the huge financial cost and human cost of that, yet when was the last time you saw a member of the “lunatic fringe” spouting off in the media about motorcyclists?

    • Chris

      Reply

      The opposite is the case. Cycling is, statistically speaking, much LESS dangerous than it is perceived to be. Dft figures give 35 billion miles as the distance travelled by bicycle per death (compare this to walking which is 30 billion and therefore more dangerous). Phillip also goes on to blame the victim – “failing to take appropriate measures to increase personal safety” – and to say that a group of road users is “indulged” because they are vulnerable and therefore more likely to be killed or seriously injured is criminally twisting statistics.

  3. David

    Reply

    There is no value in tribalizing road users into motorists, motor cyclists, cyclists and pedestrians.
    RTA casualty statistics are really shocking, but not widely publicised with the result that people put themselves in dangers which they fail to recognise. Start by requiring the Government to publish TRA accident statistics on a frequent basis, with a requirement for all news outlets to do their bit. We might then start to get public debate about the need for policy decisions to improve road safety. Just thinking of the problem on a “them and us” basis only plays into the hands of the noisy idiots.

  4. Eddie

    Reply

    If I take a gun an blow your brains out, or stick a knife between your ribs, I would be charged with murder or manslaughter,, I would without doubt serve a good few years in prison. But if I run you down with a car an leave you dead or a smashed up wreck, I will most likely face a fine/a few points or similar, as it was only a RTA. This must change, to kill someone by what means is still murder or manslaughter, an needs to be seen as such.
    One law that could help, much as the UK does not seem to want to bring it in here, is presumed liberality, it’s used across most of the EU, with good results

  5. John

    Reply

    Eddie, Did you mean “liability” where you wrote “liberality”. If so, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  6. Ros Twinn

    Reply

    There is usually an embargo on releasing a driver’s name, as police MUST be sure whether or not there is a case to answer before the details are made public. Reporters often don’t know the driver’s name for 2-3 days after the RTC, or if they do, police have said they must not use it.
    The media is constrained to report ONLY what has been confirmed. To say “John Smith struck the cyclist with his car” suggests blame which would compromise a court case that the police might wish to bring. Reporters are not allowed to do this! In any case, it might not be correct. Perhaps there is more than one car involved. Better to be vague, and tell the world that yet another person has been hurt in an accident, than not do so, because the facts haven’t yet been confirmed.
    The word “accident” is used, because it doesn’t apportion blame – otherwise news organisations would be seen as having a bias.
    I’m puzzled by the idea that poor people don’t get as much coverage as people with higher status. Generally, not much is known about those involved. Usually just age and gender, sometimes not even that. Again, if the facts aren’t released by the police, then they can’t be reported. Some cases are seen as especially “sad” and therefore become more significant – children, newly married couples, people on holiday from elsewhere – and accidents involving them are likely to get more coverage. As far as interviewing families go, many people don’t want to be interviewed (I can understand why!) and will issue a statement or tribute instead, so maybe folks from higher socio-economic groups feel more trusting towards the news crews, feel articulate enough to cope, and are prepared to go in front of the cameras, when asked.
    The big problem in all this is that mainstream media invariably supports the status quo, whatever that might be. As a woman, I know only too well what it feels like to have grown up in a world with patronising attitudes from the media. Things have improved, in that respect, and I hope it won’t be long before things improve, and the all-powerful “car lobby” (which is the status quo at the moment) is beaten back by an alternative culture.

    • Chris

      Reply

      The report should use “crash” rather than “accident”.

  7. Christopher

    Reply

    Before the Times returned to the Dark-side, they did do some good journalism about cycling.
    ———-
    Quote: The head of Scotland Yard’s Road Death Investigation Unit has called for the merging of road traffic and homicide laws to impose stronger penalties on those found guilty of killing cyclists or pedestrians.
    Detective Chief Inspector John Oldham said that the relatives of car-crash victims resented the “very small” sentences when motorists had been reckless. He added that many cases were wrongly considered “accidents” when they were the result of human decisions.
    Causing death by dangerous or careless driving carries a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison, compared with up to life for manslaughter and an automatic life sentence for murder. “The sentences are very small, and the families hate that,” Mr Oldham told The Times. “In my particular world we get very upset by the word ‘accident’. For families there is no accident about it. An accident on the road is the result of the decisions people make.” Endquote
    http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cyclesafety/article3317831.ece
    http://www.webcitation.org/67So9V561

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