Viral Video of W. Va. Reporter Struck by Pick-Up Driver on Live TV Should be a Watershed Moment

Screenshot from Twitter
Screenshot from Twitter

A horrifying car crash that aired during a live TV news broadcast in West Virginia is sparking a conversation about roadway and workplace safety — and the many ways that U.S. media normalizes traffic violence, even when they watch it happening in gruesome real time.

Tori Yorgey, a reporter for the NBC affiliate WSAZ, went viral on Thursday after her camera captured her being struck from behind by the driver of a pick-up truck as she reported from the side of a road in rural Dunbar. In the footage, Yorgey — who had been sent to the site alone, without the support of even a camera operator, to report on the dangerous road conditions — is seen being knocked down violently before righting herself and telling her in-studio co-anchor that she had “just got hit by a car, but I’m okay.”

Moments later, Yorgey adds, “I actually got hit by a car in college, too, just like that.”

Later in the broadcast, she says that the driver who struck her “was so nice, though. She didn’t mean to. It was an accident. I know it was.”

Yorgey was reportedly later transported to an area hospital as a precaution. She could not be reached for comment, and WSAZ has not responded to a request for information regarding her condition.

Warning: the video below is disturbing.

The video was polarizing on social media, with some praising Yorgey’s professionalism for finishing her broadcast after such a traumatic event, and others outraged that the reporter had ever been asked to work in such dangerous conditions at all.

The growing prevalence of “multimedia journalists” — essentially, the practice of requiring solo reporters to produce and film their own segments without any on-site support — has drawn criticism by some in the news industry as a cost-cutting measure that can jeopardize the safety of on-screen talent, particularly in conditions that stations know to be dangerous.

That’s certainly true when journalists are tasked with reporting on America’s increasingly deadly roadsides, where deaths from crashes recently reached a 15-year high. (Kanawha County, W.Va., home to Dunbar, has a car crash rate of almost 14 deaths per year per 100,000 residents, which is 26 percent higher than the national rate.)

Yorgey, moreover, was recording live from the site of a recent water main break that had made already-frozen roads even more treacherous — conditions to which the reporter was required to turn her back in order to record her own package.

It’s not clear, yet, whether the driver who struck her lost control of the vehicle or was simply confused by the emergency blockades as Yorgey’s co-anchor suggested during the broadcast. But some news pros say that either way, a producer should have been on hand to at least warn her that a driver was headed her way — or ideally, back her up if she refused to film in such unsafe conditions entirely.

“A reporter I worked with [once] was nearly hit by a jackknifing tractor trailer because his back was to the highway while he was doing a stand-up for a package; he didn’t see it coming and only heard it,” said Tory Wegerski, a Pittsburgh-based TV news producer. “These are situations that need another set of eyes on them … People should boycott stations that use multi-media journalists. Reporters should refuse to work for them, and producers should refuse to take live shots with them.”

Of course, TV reporters aren’t the only workers who risk their lives in dangerous conditions on U.S. roads — and workers certainly aren’t the only ones who are endangered by the systemic failures of America’s auto-centric transportation network, either.

The Vision Zero movement itself was famously born after Swedish transport leader Claes Tingvall pointed out that the country’s government had committed to ending worker deaths by changing the dangerous conditions of Sweden’s workplaces, but had not yet vowed to do the same on the country’s roadways, where many Swedes labored every day. Sweden’s efforts to reconcile that incongruity has since inspired advocates around the world to rethink the conditions on their own roadways, so that every traveler can be as safe as a construction worker jack-hammering the pavement behind a concrete jersey barrier.

The powers that be in America, though, have generally taken a different tack in their approach to both roadway and worker safety — by treating deaths and injuries that occur in those environments as individual “accidents,” rather than the predictable outcomes of dangerous systems that can, and must, be changed. And when Yorgey declared, on air, that the crash she’d just endured was an “accident,” she entered a long tradition of journalists who unthinkingly reinforce that individualized view of roadway safety, before anyone has a chance to examine the universe of systemic factors that precipitate a crash.

To be clear, this is in no way a criticism of Yorgey herself. She was delivering a live television interview in the adrenalized moments just after a traumatic event while her producers failed to cut away or even offer to get her help. And it wasn’t even her first car crash — just like countless Americans who have experienced multiple incidents of traffic violence in their lives.

When humans experience trauma, it can condition the nervous system to react to even the perception of recurring trauma in ways that a non-traumatized person might not understand: fight or flight, freeze or fawn, whatever survival strategy the body believes will keep us alive. Especially in the immediate aftermath of harm, human beings often have a powerful psychological, social, and ontological incentives to treat bad things that happen to them as outliers, rather than to scrutinize the systems that put them in harm’s way.

When journalists seated safely at a desk refer to a car crash as an “accident,” though, they don’t have those same excuses — and that’s exactly what many of the journalists who covered Yorgey’s crash did, despite long-standing guidance from the Associated Press to avoid using the term when reporting on road safety.

When a news station sends a reporter out onto a dangerous roadside at night without so much as a reflective vest or a single coworker to advocate for her safety, it does so both with full knowledge of the dangers of that choice, and with full knowledge that the public is unlikely to decry their negligence. That’s because, in the American consciousness, accidents happen — particularly when a car is involved. (And anyway, as every exhausted pedestrian advocate knows, even the best reflective vest in the world won’t stop the force of a pick-up.)

Tori Yorgey is not a war zone reporter who signed up to put her life on the line every time she covered her beat. (Though, to be clear, those journalists deserve robust protections, too.) She just happened to be covering a particularly dangerous space: an American highway. And until every road in the country is redesigned to be safer, her crash won’t be the last.

Update: Shortly after this article was filed, Tori Yorgey posted a message on social media updating the public on her condition. 

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

When people who bike get behind the wheel of a car, Photo: John Luton/Flickr

What Do Drivers Really Think of Cyclists?

|
There's ample research out there backing up the safety benefits of streets with protected bikeways and slow car speeds. But what about the critically important yet less tangible factor of individual attitudes -- how does the mind of the person behind the wheel affect driver behavior toward cyclists? A new report from Portland State University looks at the question.