Journalists: Here’s how to produce less horrible stories about pedestrians and cyclists getting killed

The numbers are simply staggering: More than 7,000 American pedestrians and bike riders are killed in a typical year (according to data compiled by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). That’s more than 19 deaths on a typical day.

As a career journalist who has covered this issue for many years, I read or watch hundreds of news stories every month about these unfortunate incidents, and I am afraid to report that most of this coverage suffers from the same systematic and easily fixable shortcomings. This is equally true for the most prominent newspapers in America and small-town digital-only outlets, as common for the major news networks as with small-market outlets.

With that in mind, I’d like to propose some simple best practices for writers, editors, and other news-content producers who cover pedestrian and cyclist deaths. The issue matters because collectively, the flawed coverage of these deaths amplifies public misperceptions of the both the individual incidents and the broader problems that cause them.

If you are wondering about my expertise on this matter, here is a very brief summary of my background. I’ve been a writer and editor for more than 30 years, including a stint as the editor in chief of Bicycling magazine, the world’s largest cycling magazine. For years, I have written often about the perils faced by vulnerable road users (namely pedestrians, bike riders, and runners.) I have a Twitter feed where I regularly discuss these issues and how they’re covered by US media.

Without further exposition, let me dive right into a list of ten key best practices for journalists covering the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists. I hope this can be a reference tool that leads to fairer and more impactful journalism on this important topic.

  1. AVOID THE WORD ACCIDENT. This one is easy. The word “accident” implies that an incident happened unexpectedly, without a deliberate cause. But often these incidents were entirely preventable — caused by inattention, reckless or impaired driving, or flawed road design — and in the immediate aftermath it’s typically just not possible to know for sure. This remains true even if the police use the word “accident” in reports, statements, or interviews. Per guidance from the Associated Press, the words “crash” or “collision” are more neutral, suggesting neither innocence or negligence.

2. ACKNOWLEDGE HUMAN AGENCY. A shockingly high percentage of news stories on these fatal collisions have headlines and leads that proclaim that a person was killed by a car or truck. You never see news stories that share accounts of people killed by knives or bullets — to state the obvious, you read or watch stories about victims being killed by an armed gunman or knife-wielding gang member. Police officers and journalists may be subconsciously squeamish about this usage because they don’t generally see motor vehicles as weapons. The simplest solution is to stick to the facts. A pedestrian was killed on Main Street after getting hit by a truck driver. A bike rider died after getting hit by a motorist on 3rd Avenue. And so on.

3. AVOID SPECULATIVE ASSERTIONS. So often in these cases, police come to the scene and interview the driver and examine the scene, and then must file a preliminary report without talking to other witnesses. Such incomplete reports often become the basis of news stories, so it’s important for journalists to avoid presumptions that may be counterfactual. Preliminary news stories should almost never suggest that a bike rider “veered” or a pedestrian “darted” into traffic; likewise assertions that a cyclists hit a motor vehicle or fell in front of one should be avoided. It’s understandable that a driver feels and declares that a vulnerable road users came out of nowhere or behaved erratically, but more often than not the facts present a different narrative. It’s best to be neutral.

4. AVOID VICTIM BLAMING. When covering an alleged case of sexual assault, a competent journalist would never include a passage about what the victim was wearing. Likewise, stories about pedestrians and bike riders should not recount whether they were wearing dark clothing — they were killed because someone piloting a multi-ton object hit them. In the same vein, stories should avoid mention of whether or not the victim was wearing a helmet; the obvious implication is that perhaps a rider who was run over by a city bus could have prevented his or her own death. (Again, just because such details may be contained in a police report does not mean they need to be repeated in a news story.) In my opinion, it is prudent to include details about the use or lack of lighting or reflective gear if the crash occurred after dark, if those assertions are properly attributed.

5. ADD BROADER CONTEXT. Every journalists understands that when covering a school shooting that the public needs to know that it was the 18th such incident this year. But too often, stories about pedestrians and cyclists killed in crashes treat these tragedies as isolated incidents. Last year, for instance, 29 bike riders were killed in New York City — any news stories on one of these fatal collisions should contextualize the broader problem. The public will not know that 7,000 pedestrians and riders die every year — nor understand the underlying systemic issues — unless news stories attempt to offer this context. Imagine how differently a story will resonate with readers if they realize that Ms. Johnson was the fourth person to be killed crossing Center Blvd. in the past three years.

6. DON’T PARROT THE POLICE. Just because an assertion is in a police report or conveyed by an officer does not make it a newsworthy fact. Journalists have the responsibility to omit or reframe information that is subjective, speculative, or irrelevant. It’s obviously germane if a driver is alleged to have been impaired or left the scene, but there is no need to repeat a useless pronouncement that a driver did not seem impaired or remained at the scene (which implies, quite foolishly, some broader sense of lawfulness). Journalists should ask if assertions are based solely on a driver’s account and question any investigation that quickly casts blame on a deceased victim. There is obviously a national conversation underway about policing in general, one that will likely take years to solve, and in the meantime, journalists need to demonstrate better judgment with regards to victims of traffic violence.

7. AVOID OBJECT-BASED LANGUAGE. So many stories of these fatal crashes have passages that describe a pick-up truck jumping the curb or one car careening into another before a pedestrian was hit. This depersonalizes these deeply human tragedies in a way that doesn’t occur in news stories about other deadly incidents. It is factual and more journalistic to say that the driver of the F150 hit a patch of ice and then hit a young woman waiting at a bus stop.

8. BE CLEAR WITH SOURCING AND ATTRIBUTION. Sometimes it’s hard to write or produce a news story soon after a fatal crash without relying on a single police source or report, but the story should be clear about sourcing. Perhaps it would be useful to imagine how the family and friends of the deceased may read or watch the story — which may likely be the only time the public ponders the circumstances of their death — and consider the value of attribution if the story is based almost entirely on the account a driver gave to police. Saying the driver told police the cyclist veered into the truck’s rear wheels is not the same as saying a teenaged cyclist died after veering into a truck. This is journalism 101.

9. CONSIDER FINDING AN ADVOCATE AS A SOURCE. No matter where journalists live or what region they cover, there are advocates who follow the issue in that area. Cultivating and reusing such a source is especially sound advice for writers and content producers who will periodically cover these stories. These individuals can speak to the broader issues that contextualize these deaths and sometimes even shed light on specifics in this case — perhaps cyclists have been complaining about unsafe conditions Broad Street for years, for instance. This is worth a little more reporting time.

10. TAKE SPECIAL CARE WITH HEADLINES AND SOCIAL COPY. I understand that often different people write stories and the display and social copy that promotes them. That doesn’t make it less important to get that text right. In fact, this is the language that will be seen by the most people, and the place that victim-blaming or object-oriented language will cause the most harm. “Cyclist killed in late-night accident on Broadway” is bad. “Pedestrian hit and killed by truck last night” is a little better. “Teenaged bike rider killed by driver, marking the tenth death in the city this year” is way better.

Peter Flax is committed to cycling, longform, and a diet rich in gluten. He’s been writing and editing stories for 25-plus years.

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