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.