Six Ways the Media is Still Blaming the Victim

Photo:  Arrive Alive
Photo: Arrive Alive

When a driver hits a pedestrian or cyclist, a handful of media tropes shift blame to the victims and leave readers with the impression that nothing can be done about it.

A new analysis of 200 articles covering bike and pedestrian deaths in a two-month period last year [PDF] reveals that the media “consistently” faults the dead rather than the survivor, who is often the only witness with whom cops speak.

“Through grammatical choices and by selectively including some bits of information but not others, local news coverage subtly, but consistently, blames vulnerable road users for crashes,” lead author Kelcie Ralph, an assistant professor at Rutgers, wrote in the summary paper, which was presented at the Transportation Research Board annual conference this week in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few of the problems she and her research team identified:

#1. Lack of agency for drivers

The language used by journalists verbally absolved the drivers. Of the sentences analyzed, only 65 percent named an “agent” responsible for hitting the pedestrian or cyclist. In 35 percent of the cases, the wording implied the crash “just happened.”

Even when an agent was described as inflicting a blow, it was  the car — not the driver — that was singled out in 81 percent of those cases.

#2. Focusing on the victim’s actions

The behavior of the victim, not the driver, was typically the reporter’s focus. Of the sentences analyzed, 73 percent focused on the pedestrian or cyclist’s behavior, while just 11 percent focused on the driver’s behavior and another 13 percent on the vehicle.

The typical article would state, “One of the riders was hit by a vehicle that was turning left.” Instead of, “A vehicle that was turning left hit one of the riders.”

#3. Offering “counterfactuals”

The report referred to bits of information we would probably call “victim-blaming” as “counterfactuals.”

“These statements imply that the [vulnerable road user] would not have been hit if they had acted differently, for example stating that the victim was wearing dark clothing or crossing outside a crosswalk,” the authors write.

Just under half of the articles —48 percent — had at least one counterfactual. These statements “shift blame toward the victim,” the research team wrote.

#4. Treating the incident as isolated, rather than systemic

Very few of the articles analyzed connected the incident to relevant wider issues. For example, only 8 percent of the articles mentioned other crashes in the area and only 7 percent mentioned any road design features that might have influenced the crash.

The authors instead recommend journalists use a “public health framing” to cover bike and pedestrian crashes.

“Linking each instance to the epidemic of (vulnerable road user) deaths will help bring about meaningful solutions,” they wrote.

#5. Not consulting experts

None of the 200 articles included comments from planners, engineers, or road safety experts. These are the kind of people who could help connect the crashes to wider concerns, like unsafe road design.

#6. Using the term “accident”

Finally, despite the Associated Press advising journalists to avoid the term “accident,” it was still the favored term in the articles, appearing in 47 percent of cases. “Crash” was the second most-used term; it appeared in 45 percent of the articles.

“Referring to a crash as an ‘accident’ obscures the preventable nature of collisions and is no longer recommended,” the team wrote.

Ralph’s study was just the latest in a rash of academic research pointing out flaws in the way reports cover pedestrian and cycling deaths.

  • Andrew

    #3. Offering “counterfactuals”

    There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this. For instance, if the driver hadn’t been speeding, he wouldn’t have killed the pedestrian. If the driver had yielded, he wouldn’t have killed the pedestrian. If the driver had been paying attention, he wouldn’t have killed the pedestrian. Etc.

  • As a former breaking news reporter, I found that often too much of the narrative is driven by the police report/news release and the laziness of the reporter. Details like “the cyclist was not wearing a helmet” are often used to push the blame toward the cyclist.

  • Jeff Larson

    Well state summary. The question is, how do you get reporters to change? How do reporters learn about proper use of words (accident) and not providing information that is wholly irrelevant to the incident (dark clothing, crosswalk…)? For every other industry learning is provided by training in some form. Media don’t seem to have these kinds of training.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    One of my biggest pet peeves is the reporting of lack of helmet use when the bicyclist died of massive trauma. There have literally been stories about bicyclists being crushed to death be a commercial vehicle, and the article mentions, sometimes repeatedly, that they weren’t wearing a helmet.

  • Sooo common. And it feeds into a tough uphill battle every time we advocate to improve safety on our streets. “Why are you trying to ruin ____ Street? That accident was clearly the [ped’s/cyclist’s] fault. There’s nothing that can be done about it and making my commute [slower/longer] is the wrong answer. Also, I need that [parking/turn lane]!”

  • Dave

    Media needs to start using some pejorative, sensational expressions for drivers–instead of “alleged drunk driver,” use the phrase “murderous booze fiend;” instead of “driver” use “suspected street racer.” Stuff like that.

  • Zharol

    Another one is to discover human agency in time (usually when the article is wrapping up) to find anything positive the driver did (or to comment on a relatable human reaction of the driver to the “accident”).

    The driver remained at the scene and is cooperating with police. The distraught driver had to be comforted afterwards.

  • Tom McCarey

    National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics show that 60% of pedestrian fatalities ae the pedestrian’s own fault. How is that blaming the victim? This article is part of the War On Cars: it is anti-auto/anti-driver. The agenda is to ban all those dirty, demonic, homicidal cars (except the elites’, of course). Visit motorists(dot)org Check out the NMA Facebook Page on the War on Cars

  • Taufik Abidin

    Really? probably the fault was they don’t use the footpath, bridge, traffic signal or crosswalk that doesn’t exist or is 5 km away from the crash site

  • eugene tooms

    The NHTSA doesn’t provide data on who is at fault for pedestrian fatalities.

    Even if they did, the fact that you are fine with 40% of them being killed due to no fault of their own says a lot.

  • Stephen Simac

    Police reports that involve motor vehicle collisions with cyclists or pedestrians are not reliable as to who is actually at fault. Force municipalities to assign objective crash analysts to every collision, not biased patrolmen who spend 90% of their shifts in cars.

  • crazyvag

    But you gotag wonder how much attention the driver had. I can’t imagine hitting a couch that feel off a truck that’s on the road because I’ll see it far away and wouldn’t drive so fast that I couldn’t stop. Humans aren’t exactly invisible. How soon did the driver stop braking? Why didn’t the dinner see the human dinner?

  • tinguinha

    It sounds from what other people have written here that that’s not true. But even in the case where it was the victim’s “fault” in the sense that they disobeyed some traffic rule (quite probably because there was no straightforward way to obey it, such as no nearby crosswalk):

    Society should not be designed in a fashion that leads to trivial mistakes of the sort that people make all the time getting killed. People aren’t robots, they make mistakes. All the more so for children. The price for that should not be being crushed to death.

    There is sadly no real war on cars but there certainly should be one.

  • thielges

    “How is that blaming the victim?”

    How are you sure that Survivor Bias isn’t skewing those statistics?

  • thielges

    Another idea for investigative journalism would be to find out whether police detectives ever bothered to determine whether the driver was using their phone. You would think that a crash with life changing consequences deserves a little investigation of the cause than just interviewing the driver and observing whether the victim was wearing a helmet or reflective clothing. Phone use while driving is so rampant that it should be considered a possible cause of any crash.

  • wompwomp

    Your weird comment on “elites” indicates you must not live here. The mayor is constantly mocked for using an SUV for short, local trips.

    Also, if you are going to throw around the phrase “War on Cars,” in lieu of “science-based public health crisis,” please tell me how many drivers have been killed by pedestrians or cyclists. Using that metric, I would say It’s a pretty one-sided fight.

  • Zaphod

    Plus, dead peds can’t very well tell their side of the story.

    95% of crashes are due to human error. Clearly the design of cars, roads, and interactions with other road users do not adequately account for human frailties.

  • Zaphod

    And other studies indicate that cyclists with helmets draw closer passage by vehicles than those without, and therefore helmets are not an overall contributor to safety, at least among cars.

  • Zaphod

    Everybody who deals with industrial safety knows that human are error-prone. Really, it’s pointless to blame the driver much more than the pedestrial, as both are human and WILL make human errors at a predictable rate. Of course, the pedestrian is the one who routinely suffers or dies, but all of it is a flawed system based on outdated views of safety.

  • KJ

    Wow…

  • deathisastar

    Can you provide a direct citation for your assertion about pedestrian fatalities? According to the National Society of Statisticians, 99% of statistics provided on the internet without a reference are false, and 88% of those are fabricated intentionally while only 13% are unintentional.

  • Tom McCarey

    https(colon)//crashstats(dot)nhtsa(dot)dot(dot)gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/810968

    See pages 7, 15, 26, 27 !!!, 31 for sleet & fog, 32 dark, 35 &
    36.

  • deathisastar

    I’m looking at page 7 of that report. Not only does it not say anything like your claim, but it appears to say THE OPPOSITE:

    most drivers committed at least one erroneous action.

    You’ll forgive me for not trying harder to find a source for your claim if your first citation is erroneous. So, can you point to a SPECIFIC section to support your claim about pedestrians being at fault, or do you want to retract your claim?

  • deathisastar

    His stat is nonsense. I asked for proof. He provided a report that contradicts him. See details above.

  • deathisastar

    Actually, Tom provided an NHTSA report when I asked for proof. It doesn’t support his assertion, and in fact it says that most drivers car-pedestrian collisions committed at least one error.

  • bettybarcode

    If you are on Twitter, tag @APStyleBook when pointing out victim-blaming language. They set usage rules for much of the media industry.

  • Jerry

    I’ve read police reports that couldn’t get the intersection the crash happened at correct.

  • Stephen Simac

    They frequently just make excuses for the driver and this ends up in statistics that experts rely on. New York did pass an ordnance that all vehicle/bicycle collisions must be examined by a specialist. Not sure if that changed the stats though.

  • Joe D

    Victim blaming has become fashionable as it absolves the perpetrator from responsibility. I have read comments on forums that blame cyclists, i.e. “if you had not been on the road it would not have happened”. That’s the mentality of some people.

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