Each year, motorists on American streets kill nearly 5,000 pedestrians. The loss of life is enormous — equivalent to 12 jumbo jets crashing with no survivors — but the steady drumbeat of pedestrian fatalities doesn’t register as an urgent public safety crisis. Maybe it would seem more urgent if the press covered pedestrian deaths as the preventable outcome of a broken system, instead of a series of random “accidents.”
Reports that accuse pedestrians of “darting” into traffic are remarkably common. Image: WKRN Nashville
Most local media reports of pedestrian deaths are just a few sentences long. In that brief space, they still manage to trivialize the issue of pedestrian safety and gloss over the underlying causes of traffic fatalities.
Here are four common problems with how pedestrian deaths are covered in American media and why reporters need to change their approach to traffic violence.
Blaming the victim
The default stance of most coverage is to blame victims for their own deaths. Maybe the reporter will note that the victim was not in a crosswalk, or jaywalking, or reportedly “darted” into traffic.
The underlying message is the same: If only the victim had followed the rules, he or she would still be alive. What never seems to get much scrutiny is how the driver’s actions could have prevented the fatal collision — by traveling at a safe speed, for instance, or just driving attentively on a busy city street.
In reporters’ defense, crash information tends to come directly from flawed police reports that reflect a survivor’s bias.
These reports are often based on a single eyewitness — the driver who hit the victim. Depending on a witness who is potentially culpable for killing someone cannot produce a trustworthy account. Nevertheless, the driver’s version of events is often repeated by police, becoming the basis for local news stories.