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.
Ethical cycle insurance
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