Covering the Crash: Local Media’s Role

Last Tuesday, I sat in on a webinar from the National Complete Streets Coalition called “People are dying on our streets: Why is this happening and how can we talk about it responsibly?

The webinar covered information and statistics that many cycling and pedestrian advocates know all too well: pedestrian fatalities have been increasing since the end of the Great Recession; pedestrian fatalities tend to affect older people and communities of color; and “victim-blaming” has become a common occurrence by the media when reporting crashes involving pedestrians.

The last of those points was the part of the presentation that stuck with me most. Though many media outlets in the metro have made it a point to more thoroughly cover crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians, there is still room for improvement. A number of resources were alluded to during the course of the webinar that I wish more local journalists knew about when covering these stories.

One of the key resources that the presenters pointed to during the webinar was an article published in April in the Columbia Journalism Review, titled “When covering car crashes, be careful not to blame the victim,” by Meg Dalton. Though the article referred to reports on crashes far from Kansas City, including Stamford, El Paso, and Cleveland, the mistakes Dalton listed were eerily similar to reporting on crashes here in the metro so far in 2018.

The most common mistakes made by reporters covering these incidents are:

1. Calling the crash an accident (particularly when criminality is a factor)

It may seem minor, but the word “accident” is a loaded term that not only implies inevitability, but also “implies nobody is at fault.” The Associated Press Stylebook eventually recommended “avoiding the word ‘accident’ in cases where ‘negligence is claimed or proven'” following a successful Twitter campaign.

In a January article from a news outlet in the metro covering a slew of crashes over a particularly violent weekend, the reporter titles the piece “Weekend accidents kill three pedestrians in Kansas City,” despite the fact that two of the crashes were hit-and-runs. However, for most local news outlets, this has been the exception, not the rule.

2. Discussing the victim’s clothing

The problem with emphasizing the clothing of the victim is that it perpetuates an unfortunate practice of victim-blaming. The message that emerges from coverage like this is pretty clear, as the article states: “If pedestrians follow the rules, they will stay alive. If they die, it’s their fault.”

In another January article covering the same spate of pedestrian crashes, a reporter chose to include the words of local authorities, who noted that “the victims in both cases [of hit-and-run] were wearing dark clothes when they were hit.”

3. Ignoring street design

In many instances, one crash can tell a broader story about the issues with a particular street or intersection. As Dalton notes, “Journalists often miss opportunities to talk about infrastructure…In many cases, the cause of a crash boils down to poor street design.”

Reporters missed a good opportunity to highlight such an issue in a pedestrian crash that claimed the life of Lance Shope in south Kansas City earlier this month. The article only mentions the location and states that the vehicle involved, “was heading westbound when a male pedestrian crossed the roadway and was hit.” This ignores the fact that the intersection in question had no crosswalk for a pedestrian to safely cross.

4. Using the passive voice

Perhaps the most subtle of the mistakes made by news reports on pedestrian crashes is using the passive voice, or saying that a pedestrian was hit or was killed while crossing the street. When reporters do this, they omit the errors of the driver that may have caused the crash. As Dalton explains, “Reporters don’t address, or deemphasize, motorist error — speeding, distracted driving, failure to yield — which is the leading cause of traffic collisions.”

An example of this can be seen in another crash from this month that claimed the life of Richard Sereres in Gladstone. After reporting that he was found dead, the article notes, “The man was a pedestrian who was struck and killed.” There is no mention of the vehicle at any point in the article.

5. Naming the car, not the driver

As Dalton puts it, “Reporters also tend to write about the car, and not the person behind it. They may even give the vehicle a personality when, in reality, it is just a machine.” Consequently, we tend to assign blame to the vehicle.

Take this report of a crash that occurred back in June in Independence. As the article explains, “A 2012 Chevy Suburban heading west on 23rd reportedly entered the center median and struck the victim just east of Harvard.” No mention of a driver is ever given.

One more mistake that the article didn’t allude to, but is incredibly common in Kansas City, is failing to follow up on a crash.

In one recent incident in July, “three pedestrians were struck near 27th and Jackson.” Despite the number of pedestrians hit, the lack of detail is troubling. The article ends with “It’s unknown if the vehicle that hit them stayed on the scene.” The reporter never followed up to confirm whether the driver remained on the scene or what factors contributed to the crash.

The local press of Kansas City, in both print and television, has been a valuable asset to not only helping to spread BikeWalkKC’s overall message, but also in covering crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians. Nevertheless, we need the press to do more to really help to bring attention not just to the victims of these tragic instances, but the myriad circumstances in the built environment that cause these crashes to happen in the first place.

The stories of the crashes and their victims deserve to be told. Haley Hackett’s death is tragic because it means a creative spark is snuffed out far too soon, but it also demonstrates that something is wrong with the built environment at the intersection of 43rd and Main where she perished. Anthony Saluto’s death is infuriating not just because of the family’s pain, but because the reckless driver that killed him is likely to only face a few months in prison and five years probation. His case is also noteworthy because none of the local media outlets have followed this recent development.

We understand that the media has a challenging task in covering stories around the metro with limited time and resources. That said, we wish to encourage them to use their wide-ranging platforms to cover the important details and provide close attention to the factors that lead to crashes. The preventable causes of such tragedies deserve coverage as we work together to build a safer built environment.

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