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Media reports on cyclist fatalities shift blame from drivers to riders, says researcher

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, 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.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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