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Joëlle Gélinas says depersonalisation of driver and issues surrounding grammar and contextualisation are all factors at play

The way many media outlets report road traffic collisions in which someone riding a bike is the victim can provoke strong emotions in the cycling community – and research by a PhD candidate in Canada has found that typically, the way such incidents are reported often shift responsibility away from the motorist towards the bike rider.

Joëlle Gélinas, who is studying for a doctorate in communication at the Université du Québec à Montréal, conducted a review of newspaper reports from 2016 related to incidents in which a cyclist had been killed.

In an interview with the French language newspaper Métro, she said that her conclusion was that the choice of words and phrases employed avoided pinning responsibility on the motorist involved while accentuating that of the cyclist.

As an example, she highlighted that the phrase, “The cyclist fatally hit by a lorry was not wearing a helmet” contained three examples of such language.

Gélinas said that the issues fell under three main headings – depersonalisation of the driver, grammar, and contextualisation.

She found that in 79 per cent of the 20 or so reports she studied, “non-human” terms such as “poids lourd” – “HGV” – were used, when “human” terms such as “driver” could have been employed instead.

“Characteristics relating to identity (age, sex, social function, name) that are frequently used in the identification of cyclists are few in number, absent even, in that of motorists,” she said.

“This has the effect of diminishing their presence in the framing of the incident and transferring their responsibility onto the vehicle itself.”

As for grammar, she said that the choice of words was also important, citing the frequently used phrase, “The cyclist fatally struck …” where the bike rider is the subject, implying indirectly that they bore some blame, likewise with the sentence, “The cyclist fell from their bike and slid under the wheels of the light commercial vehicle.”

She said: “These statements, by only invoking actions for which cyclists would be responsible, go beyond mitigating or concealing the driver’s responsibility; instead, they directly invoke cyclists’ responsibility.”

Turning to the issue of contextualisation she noted that some articles mention that the victim was not wearing a helmet, and she specifically highlighted cases where the cyclist was crushed by an HGV and wearing a helmet would have had no effect.

Another example of contextualisation could be found in the reporting of the urban environment where the incident happened which, combined with generalisations of cyclists’ recklessness, raises questions over the possible actions of the rider.

As an illustration, she cited the end of an article which read: “Some cyclists set off from the top of Rue Cherrier [in Montreal], timing their arrival at the traffic lights 400 metres lower down to be able to cross Rue Ontario as quickly as possible and then freewheel as far as Boulevard de Maisonneuve.”

In conclusion, she said: “A certain discomfort exists in blaming an individual for the death of another, whereas blaming someone for their own death remains more acceptable.”

She added: “This discomfort is probably cultural and not specific to journalists,” and that the types of formulation she had highlighted might also be used to maintain the presumption of innocence of the motorist involved.

However, she concluded: “The choice of words is important because it can indicate a bias."

It doesn’t take long to find a recent example of an article that starkly illustrates the points she is making.

This report, published on Monday, about a cyclist in Albany, New York “who died after colliding with a CDTA bus” notes that he “was not wearing a helmet.”

The report is fewer than 100 words in length, but also quotes a police officer as saying that the victim, Edston Kirnon, “was coming down the hill at a high rate of speed and hit the bus.” 

It's a style of reporting we often see in news stories from the United States but which is much less common in the British media, although examples do crop up from time to time.

Language does matter, of course, and it is important to be precise and to portray what is known about any incident.

That’s why here on road.cc, if reporting on an incident when all we have is the initial police press release, our usual style of reporting is to write for example that “a cyclist has been killed in a collision involving a lorry” (we're aware that there will be articles on here, particularly older ones, that depart from that, and headlines can be problematic too due to length constraints ).

In the absence of eyewitness accounts or further clarification from the police, that is often all we can report; in many cases it will not be until a coroner’s inquest or if the case goes to trial that the full facts will become known.

Turning to the observation by Gélinas that while personal details of the cyclist are more likely to be reported than those of the driver involved, there is a very good reason for that in our experience.

That’s related to the typical progression of a developing story about a road traffic collision in which a cyclist has been killed.

Nowadays, and particularly when it happens in a major city such as London, social media is first to break news of the incident (again, an important word –  many media outlets and even police forces, government departments and courts still use "accident," which implies that the event was entirely due to chance).

But confirmation comes in the form of a brief statement from the police or, more rarely, ambulance service that will typically provide the victim’s sex and age – sometimes precise, sometimes phrased as “in their 20s” for example.

Similar details relating to the driver are less likely to be supplied, and most often when an arrest has been made, when their sex and age will be supplied.

Within a day or two – sometimes less – the victim’s name will emerge, possibly through the police, or via local newspapers or tributes paid on social media by friends and family.

With that, the anonymous “victim” becomes a “person” and whether they are 18 or 80, reporting the details of their life cut short, on the impact their death has had on those closest to them really brings home the human element.

By contrast, in the vast majority of cases, the identity of the driver may only emerge weeks or even months later, and even then, only if they have been charged, in which case with legal proceedings live we can only report their name, age and where they live.

Further details, if any, may only emerge at trial and some, such as prior convictions, can only be reported upon after it concludes.

A final observation we would make, in line with the finding that the style of reporting transfers blame from motorists to drivers is by no means confined to collisions involving cyclists, supporting the assertion that cultural factors are at play.

One of the classic manifestations of this is what one might term the “Car hits tree” style of reporting, rather than the more accurate “Motorist crashes car into tree” – here’s an example from yesterday.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.

23 comments

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Zermattjohn [233 posts] 3 weeks ago
7 likes

I seem to recall that in Denmark or some equally enlightened country that the use of terms such as "driver"/"cyclist"/"pedestrian" was discouraged, and instead the use of "person driving/cycling/walking" to be used. This was to "humanise" the reporting.

I try to use this working in road safety. You'd be shocked (actually, probably not) by the number of professionals who say:

"The car was driving too fast and hit the cyclists". No, the car was being driven too fast for the conditions by someone driving it, and being human and not designed to travel at 50mph they couldn't react in time.

"There were cars parked all across the junction reducing visibility and on the footpath so the pedestrian had to walk in the road". No, someone decided that they weren't considering the safety of others when deciding where to leave their motor.

Etc...

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handlebarcam [1011 posts] 3 weeks ago
8 likes

Can't have the masses thinking driving is an inherently unsafe activity - mitigated as much as possible with airbags and driver training, as far as that goes, but still propelling tonnes of steel around by exploding flammable liquids - by reading reports of drivers being jailed for killing someone in order to get to the shops before they shut. Other people might think twice about rushing to the shops themselves, and then where would our vital retail sector be? Better to swing the blame on to their victim, and focus on whether they were wearing a plastic hat at the time when their internal organs were turned to mush. For the same reason - economic necessity - we can't have the masses thinking the financial markets are an inherently chaotic system, by reading reports of bankers being jailed.

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Mungecrundle [807 posts] 3 weeks ago
5 likes

And on the BBC today a report titled.

"Justin Bieber's car hits pedestrian"

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-40739053

Although it is made clear in the story that the car was being driven by Mr Bieber at the time.

Part of the problem is that "cyclist hit by car | lorry | van" is quite clear in meaning and all but the pendantiest pedant would understand that the vehicle was being driven. Whereas "cyclist hit by car | lorry | van driver" could as easily mean fisticuffs in the street and "person on bicycle hit by car | lorry | van being driven by a driver" is just awkward.

What does annoy me most is when a "cyclist was in collision with..." which seems to be the default in many reports even when initial indications are that the cyclist was very much the one being collided with.

To be truly impartial maybe something along the lines of "a cyclist and a car | lorry | van were involved in a collision". Which does sound like a Police report.

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psling [253 posts] 3 weeks ago
6 likes
Mungecrundle wrote:

To be truly impartial maybe something along the lines of "a cyclist and a car | lorry | van were involved in a collision". Which does sound like a Police report.

 

'a bicycle and a car | lorry | van were involved in a collision' surely?

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Mungecrundle [807 posts] 3 weeks ago
3 likes
psling wrote:
Mungecrundle wrote:

To be truly impartial maybe something along the lines of "a cyclist and a car | lorry | van were involved in a collision". Which does sound like a Police report.

 

'a bicycle and a car | lorry | van were involved in a collision' surely?

Or in the case of the Justin Bieber story.

"A pair of shoes and a car were involved in a collision."

This is all too confusing for me. Is there an expert in semantics in the house?

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AMcCulloch [1 post] 3 weeks ago
4 likes

Here in Australia it is offend reported as a "cycling collided with a car" even though the the person responsible for operating the motor vehicle is in the wrong. Here in the land down under we also blame tree for killing people but ignore the fact that it is our poor driving skills and aggressive nature on the road that contributes to most death. We are a stupid and backward country can I move to Europe please. P.s. I hate driving.

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STiG911 [255 posts] 3 weeks ago
12 likes

Throughly pissed off earlier this week with the reporting of the 91 year old 'killed when he struck a van'

Nevermind that he was hit from behind. On a straight road. I think they're scared of being sued so 'sanitise' a story to make it not look like they're finger-pointing.

Because presenting actual facts is just so damn hard. Wankers.

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Zermattjohn [233 posts] 3 weeks ago
1 like
AMcCulloch wrote:

Here in Australia it is offend reported as a "cycling collided with a car" even though the the person responsible for operating the motor vehicle is in the wrong. Here in the land down under we also blame tree for killing people but ignore the fact that it is our poor driving skills and aggressive nature on the road that contributes to most death. We are a stupid and backward country can I move to Europe please. P.s. I hate driving.

I hear bad things about the attitude towards cyclists/peds (or “Vulnerable Road Users” as we are so quaintly referred to – ie, not surrounded by roll-bars and airbags) in Australia. I reviewed some of the comments concerning the minimum passing distance law, which basically boiled down to “What? Safely pass someone else with my 1-tonne of metal so they don’t get killed? But it will slow me down? Bloody cyclists”.

In my short time living there I didn’t ride much but there was a definite gas-guzzler culture going on, very much 1950’s-style attitudes that the car is king and is the only option for civilised people. You lower class citizens on bikes really do deserve to get run over.

If you want to move to Europe, choose The Netherlands which is about as far removed from that attitude as you can get. Unfortunately the UK is about half-way between – we’re definitely not as civilised as we like to think.

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StoopidUserName [308 posts] 3 weeks ago
5 likes

"It's a style of reporting we often see in news stories from the United States but which is much less common in the British media, although examples do crop up from time to time."

 

I disagree - I've seen a huge number of examples in the british media (often highlighted by cycling campaigners on twitter etc) since I started cycling again 5 years ago. Guilty until proven innocent...

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BarryBianchi [178 posts] 3 weeks ago
5 likes

I wish this site would find another .jpg aside from the broken bike one - I'm sick of the sight of it.

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Richard D [76 posts] 3 weeks ago
1 like
Mungecrundle wrote:

And on the BBC today a report titled. "Justin Bieber's car hits pedestrian" http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-40739053 Although it is made clear in the story that the car was being driven by Mr Bieber at the time.

A big part of the reason for this is the desire to avoid being sued.  If the media report that Justin Beiber hit a pedestrian and it turns out to be wrong inaccurate in some way, Beiber sues for lots.  The risk of being wrong might be small, but the consequences could be big.  So they report the collision without imputing any blame on the part of someone still alive.  The dead can't be defamed, so it's victim-blaming ahoy.

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burtthebike [923 posts] 3 weeks ago
6 likes

"It's a style of reporting we often see in news stories from the United States but which is much less common in the British media, although examples do crop up from time to time."

I'm sorry, but do the staff of Road.cc not read the papers or watch television or listen to the radio?  This style of reporting of collisions is damn near universal in British MSM, never mind "cropping up from time to time."!

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Sub4 [39 posts] 3 weeks ago
0 likes
Richard D wrote:
Mungecrundle wrote:

And on the BBC today a report titled. "Justin Bieber's car hits pedestrian" http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-40739053 Although it is made clear in the story that the car was being driven by Mr Bieber at the time.

A big part of the reason for this is the desire to avoid being sued.  If the media report that Justin Beiber hit a pedestrian and it turns out to be wrong inaccurate in some way, Beiber sues for lots.  The risk of being wrong might be small, but the consequences could be big.  So they report the collision without imputing any blame on the part of someone still alive.  The dead can't be defamed, so it's victim-blaming ahoy.

 I had this with a local journalist around six months ago. I was sick of the constant 'car turns over in Road, car hits tree, car hits building', lazy journalism. 

 I suggested to them that they should try to incorporate some kind of human element into the story, when I was given the usual reply of "we can't attribute blame, we don't know who was at fault" line.  I was happy to suggest the use of words such as " motorist involved in RTA see as their vehicle strikes building"  as a blame free indication that a human was involved. 

 Interestingly, since this dialogue, most of the stories now to recognise the involvement of a human.  However the use of the word 'smashes' has gone through the roof.  Smashes into tree, smashes into bus stop, smashes into van etc.

 Work in progress? 

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JeevesBath [192 posts] 3 weeks ago
5 likes

And the other common 'driver lost control of the vehicle', which makes it sound as though the car suddenly developed a mind of its own and ran off the road. They're not horses, for crying out loud....!

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PaulBox [665 posts] 3 weeks ago
4 likes
JeevesBath wrote:

And the other common 'driver lost control of the vehicle', which makes it sound as though the car suddenly developed a mind of its own and ran off the road. They're not horses, for crying out loud....!

Similarly, I hate how a driver can use 'not seeing' a cyclist as a defence, when it should be seen as an admission of guilt.

Beak: "You are charged with driving with undue care and attention"

Defendant: "Sorry, but I didn't see the cyclist"

Beak: "Oh, well that's okay then...."

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Bez [612 posts] 3 weeks ago
4 likes

"It's a style of reporting we often see in news stories from the United States but which is much less common in the British media"

You lost me at this bit.

It's all over the place. British reporting might generally not be quite as aggressively anti-cyclist as American or Australian media reports but it seems every bit as eager to absolve drivers of any blame or, at times, even any involvement. Meanwhile British journalists trot out the same excuse for it every time, while their publishing houses churn out stories about cyclists colliding with pedestrians with all the finger pointing that they claim is so wrong when reporting on drivers.

Don't let British media off the hook on this, because it stinks in just the same way, even though we're more familiar with its style.

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Username [210 posts] 3 weeks ago
3 likes
STiG911 wrote:

I think they're scared of being sued so 'sanitise' a story to make it not look like they're finger-pointing.

 

Except when it is a person on a bike who hits a person walking, then suddenly it's permissible to have headlines such as: "Cyclist mows down toddler"

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Richard D [76 posts] 2 weeks ago
0 likes

Well, predictably enough when I called my local newspaper out on this issue ("Car collides with tree") they came back witha smart-alec comment telling me to go away and read some law: http://www.nctj.com/shop/product/product.php?shopprodid=24

So it's exactly as I thought - they won't report matters accurately for fear of being sued. So we have to put up with out of control cars, bikes colliding with buses and dangerous roads.

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FluffyKittenofT... [1640 posts] 2 weeks ago
1 like
Richard D wrote:

Well, predictably enough when I called my local newspaper out on this issue ("Car collides with tree") they came back witha smart-alec comment telling me to go away and read some law: http://www.nctj.com/shop/product/product.php?shopprodid=24

So it's exactly as I thought - they won't report matters accurately for fear of being sued. So we have to put up with out of control cars, bikes colliding with buses and dangerous roads.

Did you ask them why they don't get sued over 'cyclist knocks down pensioner' type stories?

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peted76 [654 posts] 2 weeks ago
1 like

Here's a prime example of this sort of shite: http://www.kenilworthweeklynews.co.uk/news/cyclist-suffers-potentially-s...

 

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Richard D [76 posts] 1 week ago
1 like

I can do better.  Today my local newspaper published a story on FB about a car driver pulling out in front of a cyclist (who was taken away in an ambulance as a result).  Their headline?  "Cyclist strikes bonnet of car".  You could not make this shit up.  And this was less than a week ago since I called them out on the way they refuse to ascribe agency to drivers involved in collisions (I got accused of being a keyboard warrior, and was told that insurance companies still refer to them as accidents, so that's what they are;  FFS).

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davel [1492 posts] 1 week ago
0 likes

Which rag is that?

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Richard D [76 posts] 1 week ago
1 like

Sutton Coldfield Observer.  They have relied to my comment on their FB feed saying that "The headline describes what happened. It doesn't apportion blame."

Which is obviously bollocks, as it implicitly apportions blame to the cyclist by apportioning the active role to him, and implicitly apportions no blame to the driver, who isn't even acknowledged as existing in the headline.