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BTA director fed up with bike crash news coverage

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on September 18th, 2006 at 12:42 pm

BTA director Evan Manvel has had enough with the way some journalists report on traffic crashes involving bicycles. He has just published the "Top Ten Things the News Gets Wrong About Crash Reports."

Here's his list.

1. Failure to include speeds in the report.
2. Failure to mention distracted or sleepy driving.
3. Mentioning whether the cyclist was in a bike lane, when she/he has a right to not be in one.
4. Mentioning that the cyclist wasn’t in a bike lane, when there was no bike lane on the road.
5. Noting that the pedestrian wasn’t in a crosswalk, when she/he was in an unmarked crosswalk.
6. Noting the pedestrian was over the legal limit for alcohol use.
7. Calling crashes “accidents” instead of “crashes.”
8. Repeating driver claims that the driver “didn’t see the pedestrian/cyclist,” or that the pedestrian/cyclist “darted” out.
9. Talking about people’s choice of clothes.
10. Including information about helmet use unnecessarily.

As a journalist and former media relations and PR professional I have some definite thoughts on this issue.

PR is all about relationships and education; that is, making nice with the media and working with them to get the kind of coverage you want for your client. But no matter what is written about your client, criticizing the media publicly is fraught with risk.

An analogy can be made to how we as a community deal with the Police. They don't always know the exact wording of the laws and so they sometimes make mistakes. When they roll up to a crash or a traffic stop, we expect them to know everything instantly and to make perfect judgements every time. This is simply not possible and we have to be careful about questioning their performance, especially in public.

For most people, their job is a big part of their identity and any time you bring someone's job performance into question, the person will probably react negatively (Critical Mass flare-ups are a good example).

Journalists, like cops, are individuals with their own values and personal biases (no matter how hard they try and suppress them). That being said they are often not completely sensitive or knowledgeable toward every different group in the community; especially if they are not personally a member of a particular community.

Also, journalists must file stories quickly, often before many details of a crash are known. The main news is that the crash happened and sometimes the smaller details (that cyclists might consider very important) simply don't make it past the editors, are not yet known, or are not followed up on in subsequent stories.

I think the best thing to do is to make sure these mistakes are not institutionalized (which I think they are to some extent with both the media and the Police) and work to make them less frequent.

For PR pros, face-to-face meetings with the media are a regular part of the job. We already meet with the cops once a month, so perhaps the BTA and PDOT should hold some educational seminars for members of the media. Or, maybe just set up regular meetings with local editors and news directors.

With the media, as with the Police, the more of them we can get on bikes the better. Once someone sees the road from a bicyclists' perspective they are immediately more sensitive and understanding of our role in the transportation mix. An example of this is the quality reporting done by avid cyclists and journalists Anita Kissee-Wilder and Brian Barker at KATU-TV.

There's a lot at stake here. The local media holds considerable sway over the perceptions of Portlanders and we have seen a huge increase in bike news coverage in this city. Let's hope this discussion leads to more sensitive and informed coverage in the future.

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Comments
  • Bjorn September 18, 2006 at 1:06 pm

    One problem I have noticed with a lot of newspaper coverage of anything police related is that the journalist simply requests the police report and then plagerizes the content. To be honest I have read police reports/news articles where I wondered why the cop didn't sue the paper for publishing his words.

    Bjorn

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  • Brad September 18, 2006 at 2:17 pm

    Top Ten lists are nice but the BTA should be doing a much more vigorous job to protect cyclists rather than educating the media.

    From where I sit, the BTA seems more interested in "safe and soft" advocacy like pursuing wonky policy discussions, selling cycle commuting, and getting more infrastructure for bikes. I applaud their efforts but I feel the rash of recent cyclist deaths demands a shift towards lobbying for better cyclist protections, tougher enforcement of current traffic laws, and at long last getting a negligent vehicular homicide law on the books in Oregon.

    We seem to have a friend in Salem in state senator and former pro cyclist Jason Atkinson who could help muster support from both sides of the aisle (Atkinson is a Republican). Why is the BTA afraid to tackle thornier issues than bike lockers and public showers?

    Jonathan - did you ever get an explanation from BTA regarding their "solution" to the Jammin' 95.5 affair?

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  • Robert Dobbson September 18, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    Interestingly enough on the KATU site, there is video explaining that Oregon has no Vehicular Homicide law, and this is why drivers are almost never prosecuted for killing cyclists. It is also why Oregon ranks 38th in the nation for cyclist fatalities - with 50th being the most fatalities, and 1st being the least. Washington is 10th.

    If we have a Senator's ear, we should encourage him to bring Oregon into line with Washington State in that regard, and get a Vehicular Homicide law on the books to protect all users of our public roadways ASAP!

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  • brock September 18, 2006 at 2:39 pm

    Atkinson seems more concerned with being able to ride his fixie without brakes than any real legislation that would protect bicyclists.

    IMO, the BTA tackling this issue is in the interest of protecting cyclists as the media plays a big part in formulating/encouraging the average motorist's view of cyclists, which in turn affects our safety.

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  • Brad September 18, 2006 at 3:04 pm

    Education like what BTA is doing is all well and good but will take a generation before we see much progress. Keep up the good work.

    I feel that a tough law would be better in the short term. It has real teeth and would be more attractive to the media. They would salivate over the first case - a driver blinded by that pesky sun kills a cyclist. Thanks to the new vehicular homicide law, the driver will minimally lose a car and the privilege of driving for several years (with a guilty,no contest plea or plea bargain) and that of course paves the way for the dead cyclist's family to get everything he / she ever worked for in civil court. That's a huge penalty!

    Plead not guilty and get convicted, you are now going to PMITA prison with murderers, rapists, meth dealers, etc. Then you lose the house and the portfolio in civil courts. God have mercy on the driver who flees the scene only to be caught later!

    Make an example of the first few cases and you will get a much faster attitude shift from the masses. With such huge penalties at stake, I believe drivers would take a moment to stop, yield, and look around much more than they do now. The penalty for not doing so is the destruction of your life. Seems fair since the careless driver destroyed a life.

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  • Elly September 18, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    In Cuba, if you are at fault in a fatal car wreck, you get the death penalty. Maybe it works, but at too high a price. I feel the same about prison (remember doing time in public high school? multiply that by 1000. wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy).

    I would love to see the transportation community work with the police on mandatory re-education for perpetrators of vehicular homicide. This could include anything from a return to drivers ed, community service as a spokesperson for traffic safety, or mediation between perpetrators and victims families or with the community. Anything to get people to take the dangers of driving seriously.

    There was some talk, last year, of bicyclists getting involved in mandatory driver's ed classes for traffic offendors (or maybe it was DUIIs) -- anyway, enough, I should take this to the traffic safety email list.

    Kudos to Evan for giving the media these guidelines. Reporters won't learn our perspective unless we educate them. If you think the BTA ought to do more, they have volunteer hours every Saturday morning (or used to -- is this still true?). Great place to get started making your ideas reality.

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  • Jasun Wurster September 18, 2006 at 3:41 pm

    Me thinks that Evan has been reading the archives off of:

    http://lists.riseup.net/www/arc/trafficsafety

    ... and is using it as a lightening rod the efforts of the cycling community to benefit his organization once again. Remember the Radio Station ordeal??? Ever hear the PSA's???

    Anyhow, yeah for the BTA for the great work they do. Really. But if we want real change that is more satisfying we need to rely less on lobbyist. We need to have more one on one another to communicate directly with each other and our elected representatives. For together we as citizens are going to be the ones that enact change by doing the work and not paying people to do it for us.

    There are a lot of suggestions happening on the above list and we are in the process of arranging an open meeting to discuss a solution. We have no idea what it will be, but if you want to be apart of this, join the list and help us brainstorm.

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  • Brian E September 18, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    What?!? You mean they still get to drive a car?

    "I would love to see the transportation community work with the police on mandatory re-education for perpetrators of vehicular homicide."

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  • Jonathan Maus September 18, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    I think we can all rest assured that City Council, PDOT and the BTA will make an Oregon vehicular homicide law a reality during the next legislative session.

    In the meantime, I think the best thing for us to do as a community is organize and carry out visible awareness actions, have events and other PR vehicles to raise awareness of this issue.

    When it is time to make noise during the legislative session you can bet I will be encouraging everyone to do so.

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  • Aaron September 18, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    My problem with Evan's list is that many of the items he cites ARE relevant to what caused a crash. He seems to think reporters should only include information which exonerates cyclists and incriminates drivers.

    Here's my point-by-point response, from my perspective as both an active cyclist and member of the media:

    1. Yes, speeds are certainly relevant, and if they're known, must be included. But it's rare for that information to be available by broadcast or print deadlines. Would Evan have the media wait until every last detail is known about a crash before reporting on it?

    2. If Evan can find a case where a distracted or sleepy driver was a factor in a crash and that was not included in a report, I'd love to see it. I can't imagine any reporter intentionally leaving that fact out of a story.

    3. The fact that a cyclist was or was not in a bike lane when one is present can certainly be relevant to why a crash happened -- and good reporters should also note that it's legal in some circumstances to ride out of the bike lane even when one is present.

    4 & 5. These appear to be straw men. Where has it been reported that a cyclist was not in a bike lane when there was no bike lane? (The same with pedestrians and unmarked crosswalks.) I'd love to see an example of this. If it's happening, he certainly has a valid complaint.

    6. The pedestrian's BAC can certainly be relevant to a story, particularly if they are not in a crosswalk or jaywalking. The reporter's job is to tell all sides of the story, and a pedestrian's sobriety is just as relevant as a driver's sobriety.

    7. Unless there's evidence of intent, most crashes ARE accidents. I'll certainly acknowledge that almost all accidents (whether it be an auto accident, or spilling your coffee at breakfast) could be avoided, but that doesn't make them less accidental. That said, I almost always use "crash" in my writing, particularly when writing about DUIs.

    8. This comes down to telling all sides of a story as best a reporter can. If a driver tells police something, that's going to be reported. If witnesses say something different, they're going to report that as well. It certainly seems unfair to a pedestrian or cyclist who can't respond, but a reporter can't ignore a driver's side of the story just because they're the only one telling it. Reporters can and should, however, note that it is just one side of the story.

    9. Choice of clothes is totally relevant when things happen at night. Yes, drivers have a responsibility to watch for all pedestrians, but there's a reason smart cyclists and joggers wear reflective clothing. If there's a combination of a drunk pedestrian, wearing dark clothes, crossing outside of an intersection, those combination of facts tell a very different story than a sober pedestrian, crossing at an intersection, wearing reflective clothes.

    10. When is using a helmet unnecessary? Reporters always note when drivers aren't using seat belts. There's no difference when talking about cyclists and helmets.

    There's a place for improving dialogue between cycling advocates and the media. We're very fortunate in Portland to have a large number of reporters, producers, and managers who are active cyclists, and very aware of these issues on a daily basis.

    But a "top ten" list that's filled with straw men and calls to stop reporting accurate information is not a good way to improve that dialogue.

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  • dotRob September 18, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    Jonathan, you said:

    "I think we can all rest assured that City Council, PDOT and the BTA will make an Oregon vehicular homicide law a reality during the next legislative session."

    What knowledge/hearsay/evidence/analysis makes you say this? I'm curious. It seems like a fairly definitive statement and I haven't heard any rumbings about such a proposal (which I'd probably have heard here if anywhere). What did I miss?

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  • Matt G. September 18, 2006 at 5:16 pm

    I second dotRob's comments. What do you know that we should also know? There's always a need for discretion and proper timing when introducing controversial legislation, but you've just let a huge cat out the bag, so please give us details so we may in turn support the efforts most effectively. This is without question the most important thing we can do for bicycle education: MAKE US WORTH SOMETHING. Once we're worth it to drivers to avoid hitting us, people will view us differently, which is a domino that needs to fall.

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  • Jonathan Maus September 18, 2006 at 5:27 pm

    dotRob and Matt,
    Thanks for calling me out on this. I'm working on another post that will give more details...stay tuned.

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  • Jeff S September 18, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    Aaron wrote:
    "10. When is using a helmet unnecessary? Reporters always note when drivers aren’t using seat belts. There’s no difference when talking about cyclists and helmets."

    There is a difference, inasmuch as it's required by (Oregon) law that you wear a seatbelt. Helmet use is voluntary for cyclists 16 and older.

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  • Dr. Mark Ross September 19, 2006 at 1:09 am

    bjorn sez: "To be honest I have read police reports/news articles where I wondered why the cop didn’t sue the paper for publishing his words."

    police reports are a matter of public record. cops work for taxpayers and cannot claim copyright ownership on work done during city time. Besides, I rather read a police report word-for-word than a
    reporter's "slant" of it. (But I do acknowledge that a reporter HAS to make it conform to newspaper formats (reader-friendly).

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  • Dan Kaufman September 19, 2006 at 10:15 am

    Though I can relate to Evan's frustration I must agree with Aaron's response.

    In many cases I am even more interested in the mistakes a cyclist made (even if they are NOT at fault) so I can avoid those same oversights.

    I accept the fact that drivers don't and won't see cyclists. I ride under that assumption and do all I can to combat that problem on a personal level. I do so because I know that no jury can award me a new spinal column no matter how careless a driver was.

    Of course, I also support the BTA and other cycle advocates in their educational, legislative, and infrastructure lobbying efforts because that creates a safer environment for all of us.

    That said, I believe it is counter-productive to enforce reporting guidelines. What we must demand from any journalist is an attempt at unbiased reporting and a willingness to dig into the story.

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  • Dog September 19, 2006 at 11:00 pm

    It really irks me when I read about pedestrians (and bikers) getting hit and killed by drivers who get away with it, saying "I did't see him/her." Seriously, I have read that so many times in the Oregonian. If a driver hit another driver's car there is no way that would be a valid excuse.
    Cell phone use while driving needs to be banned and people need to start "driving while driving." There isn't anything else anyone should be doing while behind the wheel of a car.

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  • revphil September 20, 2006 at 1:57 am

    reguarding aaron's # 7

    the issue of intent is a tricky one. But assuming that a crash is an accident because 'most crashes are accidents' is wrong. Like death penalty wrong.

    "whops, i killed someone. sorry. they were biking..."

    I fell the problem is excessive empathy for the driver who "has to live with the guilt of killing a biker" while making the biker out to be the equivelent of street trash "who should have known better... after all it is dangerous out there"

    alas, bike advertising and community building are not paying the bills for the news.

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