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 now new research has demonstrated that thanks to the leading language used in media reporting, blame for road smashes is often placed on victims.
“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.
She and colleagues elsewhere in the U.S. presented nearly a thousand readers with three “news reports” of an incident involving a motorist hitting a pedestrian, and were asked who might be to blame and what action, if any, the authorities ought to take.
When the text was presented from a driver’s perspective—victim-blaming is common in mainstream media reporting of motorists hitting pedestrians—readers stated that the pedestrian was at fault. However, when more context was provided about the road in question and the number of similar incidents citywide, readers were less likely to victim-blame and more likely to call for street changes.
“We found that subtle editorial choices influenced perceived blame,” said Ralph, an assistant professor of transportation planning at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, New Jersey.
“Adding context helps readers move away from blaming the driver or the pedestrian to recognize problems with road design.”
The research is published in the November 15 issue of Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives. It is a follow-up to work on how the media can skew blame in news coverage of traffic crashes. Many new reports state the involvement of cars in crashes, but not the motorists who had to have been driving those cars. A Google News search for “car flips” today found 326,000 results, with many of the top results appearing to suggest these “driverless” cars somersaulted without any input from motorists.
In the 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 guidance for journalists, Ralph said: “make sure your sentences have an actor and make sure that actor is not a car.”
She also recommends that journalists add “thematic framing” to their reports, including data on the number of crashes, injuries, or deaths at locations, data which can often be found quickly online.
“Time permitting, consider contacting a local transportation, urban planning, or public health expert to provide further context,” she adds.
Fellow researcher Tara Goddard further recommends that in-house and general media style guides ought to clearly state that neutral language is essential when reporting on road crashes.
In 2016, the Associated Press Style Guide changed to encourage journalists to use “crash, collision, or other terms” instead of “accident.”
“Change also needs to happen among police public information officers, and in training for police on what they say to reporters on scene,” stresses Goddard, who is assistant professor of Urban Planning at the Texas A&M University of College Station, Texas.
“But even if that doesn’t change, reporters and editors don’t have to replicate poor wording or framing uncritically.”
The new research concludes: “Given the potential to save human lives and prevent injury on a large scale, implementing more intentional editorial patterns may be nothing less than an ethical imperative.”