The language of media reports can have a huge impact on a reader’s understanding of a situation. New guidelines for journalists aim to create greater awareness and responsibility for how deaths and injuries on our roads are reported. As cyclists we are vulnerable road users so welcome these new guidelines.
Do you ever notice how in some media reports it is cars, not their drivers, that are involved in injuring or even killing pedestrians or cyclists? Or how a collision is termed an ‘accident’ making the action that caused it sound somehow inconsequential or not the result of criminal behaviour? Maybe you haven’t noticed this, not all readers consciously do, but over time this style of reporting dehumanises the victims of collisions and also reduces the perception that it is the driver, and not the vehicle, that is accountable. This personal and public perception can have far-reaching impacts in how road traffic incidents are dealt with.
The guidelines have been produced by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy in collaboration with the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, state-approved press regulator Impress, road safety charities and a range of policing, academic and expert figures. The recommendations focus on four specific areas; impartiality, discrimination, accuracy and reporting on crime. Here’s a summary.
Publishers must not use the term accident when describing road collisions – collision, or crash, are more accurate, especially when the facts of the incident are not known. In the words of one roads policing chief “there are very few accidents that are true accidents… all traffic collisions involve some form of misjudgement, error or outright dangerous action by one or more drivers in a collision”. While reporting on a collision immediately after a crash, journalists won’t know why a crash took place, using the word ‘accident’ suggests an unavoidable incident – which publishers equally won’t know is true. Reporters must avoid speculation about the cause of an incident, including calling it an accident.
Why this is welcomed: Perpetuating the belief that an accident is unavoidable discourages apportioning blame or any action that could prevent the incident reoccurring, for example fixing a pothole or changing the lay-out of a junction.
Publishers must avoid using negative generalisations of road users, and must not use dehumanising language or that which may incite violence or hatred against a road user in comment and news coverage. Dehumanising cyclists is associated with increased antisocial behaviour and aggression towards them, such as deliberately driving a vehicle at, or throwing something at them. In turn, those who feel dehumanised are more likely to feel hostile themselves, risking further fuelling aggression on the roads. If in doubt, publishers should consider how jarring, or morally and logically questionable it would seem applying the same assumptions to other perceived groups. The term ‘cyclist’ alone can engender negative connotations, for example; consider characterising someone on a cycle as a person, where possible.
Why this is welcomed: Seeing the human consequences of an incident can help influence readers to take more care and make better decisions in their own road use.
Coverage of perceived risks on the roads should be above all accurate, based in fact and context. Publishers should make mention of human actors in a collision, and avoid reference to personal protective equipment, such as hi-vis and helmets, except when demonstrably relevant. Publishers must, as early as possible in an article, make mention of the presence of the human participants in a collision. If an action or reaction is caused by a person, rather than a driverless vehicle or one whose handbrake failed while parked on a hill, say, mention the presence of a driver, even if their identity is unknown. Cars cannot flee the scene of a collision, flip themselves over or speed without a driver. The reporting of risk impacts the public’s perception of that risk, and overemphasising the risks of cycling and walking, say, or underestimating the risk caused by poor driving may alter the public’s behaviour in a way that negatively impacts theirs or others’ health and willingness to walk or cycle.
Why this is welcomed: Walking and cycling should be safe activities, if the public perception is that they are inherently dangerous then less action will be taken to solve the causes of danger.
Reporting on crime:
Publishers must avoid portraying dangerous or criminal behaviour on the roads, such as speeding, as acceptable, or those caught breaking the law as victims. Publishers should not suggest catching and penalising those who speed is wrong or unjust, or perpetuate a view that speeding is socially acceptable. Inappropriate speed is a factor in 24% of fatal collisions, and the risk of causing injury increases 3% for every 1kph increase. Drivers who break the law by speeding are more likely to engage in other risk-taking behaviour, such as jumping red lights. This clause applies to any other dangerous driving activity, including mobile phone use, and the coverage of celebrities on the roads.
Why this is welcomed: Criminal behaviour should not be portrayed as acceptable, doing so normalises criminal behaviour on the road which can lead to more people disregarding traffic law.
That these guidelines needed writing shows the extent of the problem in reporting of road incidents. Where we see these guidelines being broken we can help improve reporting in the future by calling it out to the publisher, who is ultimately responsible for the content.