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Words matter when reporting on bike safety issues

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LAST WEEK WSAV reporter Claire Going produced a robust report on the hazards faced by people who ride bikes for recreation and transportation in Savannah. Featuring multiple interviews, the package was nearly five minutes long.

It’s the most comprehensive look at conditions on Savannah streets produced by a local TV station in recent memory. Among the people Going talked with was a man who described being “afraid to cycle much around Savannah.”

He said, “When I go out, especially anywhere out of downtown, people have buzzed me, been aggressive towards me, and it has been really frightening sometimes.”

The fact that he’s a Methodist pastor, leading a congregation noted for its commitment to serving the community, did not matter to the folks who visit WSAV’s Facebook page.

You see, the Rev. Ashley Randall and people like him bolt out in front of drivers, forcing them to slam on the brakes. Some even think they’re immortal, while others ride their bikes, “like dying is their mission.”

These comments are unsurprising and the negative response to coverage of bicycling is so predictable, there’s even a bingo card (https://www.connectsavannah.com/savannah/soft-pedaling-the-bicycle-trolls/Content?oid=2502645) you can play while reading them.

Still, the prevailing notion that percolates up in response to reporting on traffic safety is this: People who walk and ride bikes do not deserve bike lanes, sidewalks, or other infrastructure that would make them safer because some of them break the rules.

As I have noted in the past, if a similar standard was applied to those of us who drive, all highway construction in the United States would immediately cease.

You’d think after all these years that I would finally learn to stop reading the comments and not get all upset. After all, it’s just words.

Well, words matter. While Going’s Nov. 15 story was sympathetic to people who ride bikes and the dangers they face, it’s sadly atypical of media coverage of crashes in which people are killed while walking and riding bikes.

The language used by journalists shapes public response to their reporting and that shows up in the comments. New research, also published Nov. 15 in the journal “Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives,” examined how news coverage of traffic crashes affects perceived blame and preferred solutions.

Researchers from Texas A&M and Rutgers conducted an experiment, “in which 999 subjects were randomly assigned to read one of three versions of a news article describing a traffic crash involving a pedestrian. After reading the description, subjects were asked “to apportion blame” and “assess various approaches for improving road safety.”

Their findings? “Even subtle differences in editorial patterns significantly affected readers’ attribution of blame.”

What are these editorial patterns? One is using “accident” instead of “crash,” which “obscures the preventable nature of crashes.”

The good news in Savannah is that the use of “accident” is declining due to, I think, the Savannah Police Department’s decision to change the name of the division that investigates crash scenes and largely eliminate the word from press releases.

The “Major Accident Investigation Team” is now called the “Traffic Investigation Unit.” Still, many Savannah news outlets and even one local government agency use “accident” exclusively.

Another using object-based language. When a member of the media tells viewers that “a car jumped the curb” instead of reporting that a motorist drove over the curb, this diminishes the role of a human actor in the crash.

While the differences in wording may seem minor, Tara Goddard and her research partners found, “even relatively subtle differences in editorial patterns significantly affected readers’ interpretation of both what happened and what to do about it on nearly every measure.”

And that’s important. The role of infrastructure in improving safety for people who walk and ride bikes is indisputable.

Yet victim-blaming in reporting prevents the public from understanding and supporting the types of changes required in response to a public health emergency. And it truly is an emergency.

Pedestrian deaths increased by 46 percent between 2009 and 2016. The fatality rate for people who ride bikes has risen 37 percent in nine years.

Even in the face of these horrifying numbers, the study’s authors point out, “there has not been a sustained and widespread public call to action” to make streets safer. This “lack of widespread public concern” is linked to how traffic safety issues are presented by the media.

Journalists who cover crashes may indeed have the ability to save lives through their reporting. In fact, the study’s authors suggest “implementing more intentional editorial patterns may be nothing less than an ethical imperative.”

Collectively, the outcome of better crash coverage is significant.

“Adopting simple improvements in crash reporting,” Goddard and her colleagues write, “offers a potentially powerful tool in shifting cultural awareness of traffic crashes as a preventable public health issue.”

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