Conclusive Evidence: How the Media Fails Bicyclists

Photo:  Transportation for America
Photo: Transportation for America

Media coverage of cycling deaths consistently suggests that the deaths are acceptable and the victims were at fault, a new study shows.

University of South Florida researchers Julie Bond and Erin Sheffels used a scientific technique called “critical discourse analysis” in their review of 189 news reports of 94 bicycling deaths in Hillsborough County, Florida, between 2009 and 2018 — and discovered substantial bias.

The articles, Sheffels said, “reflect an assumption that responsibility for safety lies on the bicyclist.”

Here are some patterns they identified:

Lack of agency for the motorist

Reporters had a habit of distancing the driver from the death. In 111 cases, the accounts referred to the “truck,” “car” or “vehicle” as the actor in the collision.

For example, one account read:

[The cyclist] was standing on the corner of Waters Avenue and Florida Mining Boulevard at 2:14 p.m., when a Mack truck made a sharp right turn and hit [the cyclist], deputies said.

In many cases, driver’s name did not appear in the story at all.

“In almost all the articles motorist agency was eliminated from the story,” Sheffels said Thursday in a webinar explaining the findings.

Sentence constructions were also subtly biased. The reporters often used passive construction to avoid singling out blame: “A bicyclist was hit by a car,” rather than “John Doe stuck the bicyclist with his car.” Other studies have shown that passive language has a major impact on the way people assign blame in other situations, such as how jury members review sexual assault cases.

Framing the deaths as unconnected

Media accounts tended to treat each death as isolated, rather than part of a larger pattern with an identifiable set of causes. Hillsborough County is one of the most dangerous areas in the country for cyclists. But many reports offered no wider framework to understand the deaths, Bond and Sheffels found.

Of the 189 account analyzed, 133 treated the cycling deaths as an isolated event, unconnected from any wider public concerns. “Episodic” coverage — they called it — creates the impressing that cycling deaths are “normal,” and to be accepted, rather than part of a wider epidemic.

In addition, these accounts typically reflected “an assumption that responsibility for safety lies on the bicyclist.” This “narrative functioned to remove blame from the motorist,” said Sheffels.

Roughly 30 percent of the stories did connect the death to wider concerns like infrastructure or motorist or cyclist education. News coverage was much more likely to be “thematic,” the study found, in hit-and-run deaths, because then the crash was seen as a crime.

Socioeconomic status and marginalization

Cyclists were implicitly blamed for their own deaths in a majority of the media coverage. But Bond and Sheffels found that the socioeconomic status of the cyclist affected how likely they were implicitly blamed.

When the victim was poor — most Hillsborough County cycling deaths were in low-income neighborhoods — he or she was more likely to be characterized as being at fault.

Status wasn’t always apparent, but news reports often carried clues by referring to where a victim lived or his or her profession. Other “identity markers” included attire, gender, age, socioeconomic status.

“All of those traits can stigmatize bicyclists,” Sheffels said.

In cases where the victim had more social capital, coverage tended to be more sensitive, for example, offering accounts from family members.

Media accounts that blame cyclists for their own deaths are a national problem. When 22-year-old Sylvia Bingham was killed by a truck driver in Cleveland in 2009, the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that “she was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident,” even though a doctor said it would not have made a difference.

Often, the media bias stems from insensitive initial information given to the press by police. In New York City, for example, Citi Bike rider Dan Hanegby was blamed by a police spokesperson for “swerving” into traffic before he was hit by a tour bus in 2017. Video footage of the crash released much later showed that Hanegby never veered from his path.

Police even blame cyclists in non-fatal incidents, suggesting that drivers have hegemony over the roads. Many reports show how the media and local officials conspire to create a “fear of cyclists” that is not supported by any statistical evidence.

A similar study earlier this year by MacEwan University Professor Heather Magusin, studying media coverage of pedestrian deaths in Canada, identified similar patterns of blame.

  • LHT

    Thank you for this. This validates the vague ‘yucky’ feeling I get whenever I read these reports in the major news outlets. Any suggestions for training reporters who cover these tragedies?

  • Cynara2

    Talk about a determination to destroy the sidewalks for pedestrians. Consistently picturing moving tires on narrow sidewalks?

  • Emmily_Litella

    You are not a very nice person Cynara.

  • Luca Guala

    “she was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident” sounds vaguely like: “she was not wearing a chastity belt at the time of the rape”

  • Waterside

    I think that’s the point — check out the “bike lane” in the photo. if you want bikes off the sidewalks support protected lanes.

  • Obesa Adipose

    Look closer – they’re children and in most municipalities by law have ride their bike on the sidewalks. See Emmily’s comment.

  • Cynara2

    Because cyclists are so nice to pedestrians? I think not.

  • Cynara2

    Bikes are inanimate objects. They are not human, let alone children. They are made of steel. Those are tires, not feet. Two children on bikes paralyzed a woman where I live. Cyclists are failing miserably in getting along with pedestrians. Take responsibility for the dangerous objects you are controlling.

  • Cynara2

    Protected bike lanes only mean that cyclists ruin the sidewalks and crosswalks in order to evade red lights and stop signs. And they still refuse to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk. It is the attitude of cyclists that must change.

  • qatzelok

    And let’s not forget how dangerous tricycles are, or sports shoes. An elderly women in a wheelchair was recently killed by a small child wearing Spiderman shoes that glow in the dark. (grow up)

  • qatzelok

    Capitalist media is as free as capitalist workers. They can do anything they want, as long as their money-masters approve. Commercial media is entirely controlled by advertising dollars. They are paid to empathize with the deadly machines that pay their rent. This is NOT freedom of speech by any means.

  • rduke

    oh just fuck off troll

  • Spifford

    You said moving tires. Now you say inanimate. Which is it? You’re either talking about biking or you’re talking about bikes. If you have to explain your statement this much then it wasn’t a clear statement and you’d do well to start again.

  • Spifford

    Showing that you don’t know what a protected bike lane is won’t help you. You spouted 3 unrelated opinions and nobody is impressed.

  • Spifford

    We get it. A cyclist was mean to you or somebody you know. Do you need a hankie? Name any group you like and there will be a crowd eager to nay-say their actions. You’re not convincing anybody to doubt this well researched paper.

  • SurlyCyclist

    Dozens of people are killed by cyclists every year! Dozens!

    This is the real problem people! Who cares about the tens of thousands of people killed by motor vehicles every year! Cyclists are the real scourge of the urban landscape!

    A few weeks ago while legally crossing in a crosswalk I was struck by a woman driving an F150 who failed to yield before making her left turn. I’m still hurting, but can you imagine what state I would have been in had she been on a 20lb bicycle instead of in her 5000lb truck?

    In all seriousness the leading cause of injury to pedestrians is tripping followed closely by being struck by a motorists. Injuries caused by cyclists are so uncommon that they don’t make the list. Cyclists don’t kill over 5,000 pedestrians a year, motorists do.

    Put the axe away, look at the facts, and get your priorities straight.

  • Simon Phearson

    It sounds from your comments that you believe that cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers all need to be fully separated, on paths that are suitable to each. Drivers get roads; cyclists get physically separated bike lanes; pedestrians get sidewalks.

    No cyclist I can think of would opt for the sidewalk if you provide a smooth, physically protected bike lane for them to use instead. Asphalt is far more pleasant to ride on than typical sidewalk pavement. So that would resolve a big part of the conflicts.

    As for crosswalks – again, smarter design can resolve some of the issues. Protected intersections provide ample opportunity for cyclists and pedestrians to negotiate each other, without combining their issues with drivers’ conflicts.

    There is no way to perfectly resolve all conflicts – at some point, we have to cross one another’s paths of travel – but with smart design, we can reduce the conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians to the point where they’re getting along at least as well as drivers and pedestrians now do.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Those are not children; at the most they are adolescents. And I’d like to see these laws that require that children bike on the sidewalk. The UVC and most state codes don’t specify an age at which a bicyclist may ride on the street.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    The horror! And children no less.

    Are you as outraged at the tens of thousands of fatalities resulting from automobiles, and the millions more injuries, including permanently debilitating injuries from car crashes, mostly caused by adults (that should have better skills and judgement than children).

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    So you complain that bicyclists use the sidewalk, and now you are complaining that they are on the street in bike lanes. Which is it? Just admit that you are a cranky troll that has issues with that horrible contraption called a bicycle.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    The helmet fetish is one of the biggest issues in the US. Wear a helmet, that’s the key to safety. Articles almost universally refer to the helmet, even when the bicyclist dies from massive trauma after being driven over by a commercial vehicle. There was a similar article where the “journalist” cited five times the fact that the woman wasn’t wearing a helmet. But not once did he mention that she had no lights. Sadly, that was what contributed to her demise. They could have at least used her crash/fatality as a means to educate on the importance of having lights at night, but nope…she wasn’t wearing a helmet (repeat 5x).

  • Ted Parkinson

    Yes comrade! It is only after the proletariat have taken over the means of production that we will have clear and unbiased media.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Apparently you don’t know what freedom of speech means. And ironically, it seems that if you had your way, some socialist media would dictate what speech is allowed, which is at the heart of the First Amendment (the government shall not limit speech). Amazing cognitive dissonance.

  • Wranger

    Over the past couple of months I have been writing to our local news groups to call them out on their biased reporting, often using their “suggest a correction” links. Otherwise, many times if you click on the reporter’s name at the top of the article it will link you to their email. Only one reporter has responded to me, and he wasn’t willing or able to see his bias even though he said he’s a cyclist, too.

  • rivardau

    We see similar writing in crashes at grade crossings where automobiles and truckers are on the railroad tracks and a train hits them…

    But headlines and stories also remove the car – and the driver – from the blame…
    also uses active voice/aggresive action verbs or adjectives to describe the train!

    The other thing that happens…and notice this as you read about future transportation incidents…..is that cars have “accidents”, while other vehicles have crashes, sinkings, derailments, hits, etc. We hear of bike crashes, not bike accidents. The word “accidents” for cars but not for others – really hacks me off, and just by the very nature of the word “accident”, the bias is built in that there is no fault to the driver of the car…even when the driver is the one who causes the crash.

    “Train slams into truck”, “Train crash”, “speeding train” (even if going within it’s speed limit, which may be faster than the road’s speed limit), Amtrak derails (bourbonnais IL) and kills 11 people (never minding that a semi flatbed truck was on the railroad tracks to cause the crash)….

    it’s even worse when it is a passenger vehicle, like the Fox River Grove Illinois school bus hit by an “express Metra” train in which 7 students died….while de-emphasizing the fact that the bus driver had stopped at a traffic light that was close to the railroad track and her back end of the bus overhanging into the railroad right-of-way….

    what she should have done was to 1) know the length of her bus; 2) been pulled up even further to or past the light…she would have been better off in the road intersection than in the rail crossing; 3) or stop before crossing the tracks to make sure she had a green light on the other side and get through both intersections at once.

    But she was not charged with any crime…..the traffic light infrastructure, the lack of a sign saying how many feet were between the track and the light … were the things that got the official blame.

    But ya all the headlines were about that EXPRESS train that was not ever scheduled to stop at that small town depot anyway, on a double track mainline, crashed into the bus and broke the bus body off of its chassis, spinning it around and injuring and killing students/youth/little kids

    not that the bus driver didn’t know her vehicle dimensions nor choose to go into the traffic intersection even if against the light….let a car hit her bus, or let her bus hit a car…but anything would have been better than being hit by train!

    *note the passive voice for the train….the bus WAS HIT BY the train is what the headlines should have read…

    and the intensification of the fact that it was YOUTH…all those lost potential futures, the “gone too soon” innocent angels, the heartbreaks for so many families – and the entire community.

    Yes, I lived in the next town…it was horribly tragic. but the train did not leave the tracks to go chase that bus (or other cars, trucks) down the road to go crash into it on purpose.

    For the Bourbonnais crash, 4 of the people killed were a family of adults and children in one of the sleeper car rooms, which was sensationalised. Other americans got a bit of coverage, and 1 foreign univ student from japan, who barely got a mention in the media.

  • Dan Trotter

    Of course I don’t condone anyone compromising other peoples safety but this kind of comment is borderline “racist” against people who use bicycles. Imagine referring to some other vulnerable minority group with such prejudiced language. It is the attitude of people like you which must change.

  • nlpnt

    You’re not wrong. Anyone who’s watched local TV news without aggressive use of the mute button, especially when election season’s over, can’t help but notice the often wall-to-wall car dealership ads.

    That said, most media companies try to enforce a “church-and-state” separation between content and advertising, but the keywords there are “most” and “try”.

  • darelldd

    Cyclists ARE pedestrians. So are drivers. Effectively every human is a pedestrian. Effectively every “active” adult is also a driver. Some are cyclists. We’re all people. There is little reason to make a distinction. There will always be idiots. And they can be in a car (deadly) on a bike (sometimes annoying) or on foot (also sometimes annoying.

  • darelldd

    There really are no “cyclists.” They’re people who ride bikes. The same way that there are no pedestrians. These are people who are currently walking. They may have just gotten off their bikes, or out of their cars. Labels mean nothing. We’re all people. The people who ride bikes are not much different than the people who don’t.

  • Janet Nelson

    And fail miserably. The traffic department will try, but the sales manager will override separation to cram in more ads.

  • Janet Nelson

    Cyclists and pedestrians need to be aware and do their best to obey traffic rules. However, *drivers* must be aware that pedestrians and cyclists have the right of way. A 2,000 car is basically a killing machine on wheels. I’m sorry if a cyclist was thoughtless, and possibly hurt you, but blaming a cyclist in a crash is like blaming the fly hit by a fly-swatter.

  • Max Power

    Or, the reporters are just parroting the line from the police, which is in no way a capitalist institution.

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