How does media coverage of Chicago ‘accidents’ downplay the role of drivers?

February 11, 2020

The statistics are alarming. Pedestrian deaths are up almost 30 percent since 2013. Cyclist deaths have increased by about 14 percent. Media coverage of crashes isn’t helping.

Yet we see little public outrage over the rising death rates. Why? In part because the media, according to a report in a journal of the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, tend to blame the victims for the crashes that kill them. This is exactly what road safety advocates have been saying for years.

Researchers analyzed reporting on 100 fatal pedestrian incidents and 100 fatal cyclist crashes. They discovered subtle phrasing that shifted the fault to victims. Examples:

  • Referring to the crashes as “accidents,” which makes them sound avoidable by the victims.
  • Phrasing like “a pedestrian or cyclist was hit by a car” instead of “a driver hit a pedestrian.”
  • Describing the actions of a vehicle instead of the driver. For example, reporting a ‘‘a car jumped the curb’’ instead of ‘‘a driver drove over the curb.”

Media also failed to take into account factors such as road design and traffic engineering. The result is an incomplete picture of the fatalities.

How the media can more fairly report on fatalities

To be clear, journalists are not intentionally blaming pedestrians and cyclists, but they can do a better job of reporting.

The British Medical Journal, citing the “undue neutrality” of the word “accident,” has banned its use. Journalists can use words like “crash” and “collision” instead.

Journalists also need to place more emphasis on the drivers of motor vehicles when the situation calls for it. Reporting “a car hit a pedestrian” takes responsibility away from the operator.

Reports should closely examine locations that have been the site of several crashes. Road safety experts can shed light on why some crashes occur, but only if they are asked.

Improved media coverage needed to reset the public discussion

The language journalists use helps set the tone for how the public views crashes. The bias seeps into the consciousness of drivers, police, prosecutors, judges and lawmakers. If you’re a pedestrian or cyclist who has been injured in a crash – or worst, you have lost a loved one in a fatal collision – you may find it more difficult to prove your case.

The car accident lawyers at Coplan & Crane have extensive experience assisting injured victims and their families in Oak Park, Chicago, River Forest and throughout the Midwest. Contact us today for a free case evaluation. We work on a contingency fee basis, so you pay nothing unless we win your case.