Journalists Should Stress Agency In Reporting On Traffic Crashes, States New Media Guidelines

Noble Horvath

Provided caption does not include agency : “The aftermath of a crashed Audi car that has crashed … [+] through railings of Ruskin Park, a public space in Herne Hill on 21st August 2020, in London, United Kingdom. The car was seen speeding through Ferndene Road, a residential street in […]

“From reading some news headlines, and the ensuing articles, you could be forgiven for thinking cars were already self-driving,” said U.K. journalist Laura Laker, one of the drafters of new guidelines to be issued to journalists who write about road traffic crashes.

She has collected numerous articles about road crashes which don’t ascribe agency to motorists.

“It’s important we remember collisions involve vehicles piloted by people,” she said.

Search on Google for agency-less reporting of road traffic incidents, and you’ll find plenty of examples.

“Car overturns in crash,” reported GloucestershireLive on September 27. Earlier, a family had a “lucky escape” after “car leaves road and hits tree on country lane,” reported the Leicester Mercury. “Car leaves scene of crash, then collides with a house,” reported the website for a Canadian TV channel.

The editors who headlined those articles and the journalists who provided the copy neglected to include agency. And this is damaging and wrong, says new, expert-led media guidelines which state that “publishers should make mention of human actors in a collision.”

Crashes have causes, and these causes are invariably due to poor driving; often dangerous driving. Yet reporters the world over sometimes steer clear of ascribing actions to humans when the incidents—many of which are either obviously criminal or turn out to be so—involve motorists.

There is no reporting about autonomous assault rifles or swords going on solo stabbing sprees—there’s always agency: “Gunman on rampage”; “Killer armed with knife tackled by police.”

The new U.K. reporting guidelines, issued today, were drafted by journalists and academics, and advised by police, lawyers, and expert groups such as the U.K.’s National Union of Journalists and media monitoring organization IMPRESS.

Subject to public consultation until November 8, the guidelines were produced by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy (ATA) and aim to “help journalists, broadcasters and publishers improve the public debate around road safety,” said an ATA statement.

“While guidelines already exist for reporting on suicide, children and refugees, none specifically guide best practice around reporting of road collisions,” continued the statement.

Crash, not accident

Planes do not slam into the ground accidentally, they crash. However, such language is not always used for road smashes: they are often described as “accidents,” as though no one was at fault. Campaign groups have been lobbying for neutral road-incident vocabulary for many years—“crash, not accident” is a common mantra—and research published last year demonstrated that the leading language used in media reporting often results in so-called “victim blaming.”

“Simple changes to how we talk about crashes can help move the needle on public support for safer streets,” said Kelcie Ralph, one of the academics behind the research. 

In earlier research, Ralph found that news articles about road crashes referred to a vehicle in 81% of cases but referred to a driver just 19% of the time.

In 2016, the U.S.-based Associated Press Style Guide changed to encourage journalists to use “crash, collision, or other terms” instead of “accident.” 

Words matter

“Tragic occurrences are often painted as unavoidable accidents rather than the result of very avoidable criminal behavior,” said British Cycling policy advisor Chris Boardman, who is also Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling commissioner.

“Words really do matter; they paint a picture and influence both how we feel about a topic and how seriously we take a crime,” he added.

Death on the Streets author Dr. Robert Davis said: “If we are to have guidelines on a whole variety of matters, then it makes sense to have them in transport. This is particularly so in matters where human agency—often criminal—can easily harm fellow citizens.”

“Good reporting should inform,” said John Ranson from the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council.

“But too much of the media’s coverage of road collisions has played into and reinforced lazy generalizations.”

The co-chair of the U.K. parliamentary group on cycling and walking, agreed. Tory MP Selaine Saxby said: “We have media reporting guidelines for a whole variety of serious societal issues, and so it is important that road collisions are included.”

The guidelines are “long overdue” because “language matters,” stressed barrister Martin Porter QC:

“It may seem harmless to speak of vehicles speeding, running lights or running people down, thereby implying no human responsibility but the knock-on effects contribute to an increased danger on our roads and failings throughout the justice system.”

The Road Collision Reporting Guidelines has four strands:

  • Impartiality: “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.”
  • Discrimination: “Publishers must avoid using negative generalizations of road users, and must not use dehumanizing language or that which may incite violence or hatred against a road user in comment and news coverage.”
  • Accuracy: “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.”
  • Reporting on crime: “Publishers must avoid portraying dangerous or criminal behavior on the roads, such as speeding, as acceptable, or those caught breaking the law as victims.”

Journalists, said Laker, ought to make sure to always include agency in any stories about road crashes.

Laker, who does freelance work for ATA, said: “Ultimately if enough people in the road safety industry agree this is the right way to report, then it becomes best practice,” she pointed out.

“We will be asking media outlets to follow those guidelines, and if they don’t, we can ask why not.”

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