An autonomous vehicle crashed into a parked car in Ontario, Canada, and yet this rogue robot-piloted car continued to leave a trail of destruction in its wake, only being stopped in its AI tracks by a large building. Autonomous? Must have been because here’s the CTV News headline: “Car leaves scene of crash, then collides with a house.”
There appeared to have been no human driver involved. It was a car doing the crashing, not a motorist. Search on Google for such incidents, and they are far more common than you might imagine.
“Car overturns in crash,” reported GloucestershireLive on September 27. Earlier this month, a family had a “lucky escape” after “car leaves road and hits tree on country lane,” reported the Leicester Mercury.
Now, either crashes involving driverless cars—including plenty of fatal incidents—are a worldwide phenomenon or journalists too often don’t include agency in their reporting.
Of course, it’s the latter.
And according to new, expert-led media guidelines, “publishers should make mention of human actors in a collision.”
So, in the first example above, the headline should have started: “Motorist leaves scene of crash…”
It wasn’t the car acting on its own volition—there was a human driver behind the steering wheel, the same human was depressing the accelerator pedal.
Crashes have causes, and these causes are invariably due to poor driving, often dangerous driving. Yet reporters the world over often steer clear of ascribing actions to humans when the incidents—many of which are either obviously criminal or turn out to be so—involve motorists.
There is no reporting about autonomous assault rifles or swords going on solo stabbing sprees—there’s always agency: “Gunman on rampage”; “Killer armed with knife tackled by police.”
The new U.K. reporting guidelines, issued today, were drafted by journalists and academics guided by police, lawyers, and expert groups such as the U.K.’s National Union of Journalists and media monitoring organization IMPRESS.
Subject to public consultation until November 8, the guidelines were drafted by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy (ATA) and aim to “help journalists, broadcasters and publishers improve the public debate around road safety,” said an ATA statement.
“While guidelines already exist for reporting on suicide, children and refugees, none specifically guide best practice around reporting of road collisions,” continued the statement.
Crash, not accident
Planes do not slam into the ground accidentally, they crash. However, such language is not always used for road smashes: they are often described as “accidents,” as though no one was at fault. Campaign groups have been lobbying for neutral road-incident vocabulary for many years—“crash, not accident” is a common mantra—and research published last year demonstrated that the leading language used in media reporting often results in so-called “victim blaming.”
“Simple changes to how we talk about crashes can help move the needle on public support for safer streets,” said Kelcie Ralph, one of the academics behind the research.
In earlier research, Ralph found that news articles about road crashes referred to a vehicle in 81% of cases but referred to a driver just 19% of the time.
“Tragic occurrences are often painted as unavoidable accidents rather than the result of very avoidable criminal behavior,” said British Cycling policy advisor Chris Boardman, who is also Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling commissioner.
“Words really do matter; they paint a picture and influence both how we feel about a topic and how seriously we take a crime,” he added.
Death on the Streets author Dr. Robert Davis said: “If we are to have guidelines on a whole variety of matters, then it makes sense to have them in transport. This is particularly so in matters where human agency—often criminal—can easily harm fellow citizens.”
“Good reporting should inform,” said John Ranson from the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council.
“But too much of the media’s coverage of road collisions has played into and reinforced lazy generalizations.”
The co-chair of the U.K. parliamentary group on cycling and walking, agreed. Tory MP Selaine Saxby said: “We have media reporting guidelines for a whole variety of serious societal issues, and so it is important that road collisions are included.”
The guidelines are “long overdue” because “language matters,” stressed barrister Martin Porter QC:
“It may seem harmless to speak of vehicles speeding, running lights or running people down, thereby implying no human responsibility but the knock-on effects contribute to an increased danger on our roads and failings throughout the justice system.”
The Road Collision Reporting Guidelines has four strands:
- Impartiality: “Publishers must not use the term accident when describing road collisions – collision, or crash, are more accurate, especially when the facts of the incident are not known.”
- Discrimination: “Publishers must avoid using negative generalizations of road users, and must not use dehumanizing language or that which may incite violence or hatred against a road user in comment and news coverage.”
- Accuracy: “Coverage of perceived risks on the roads should be above all accurate, based in fact and context. Publishers should make mention of human actors in a collision, and avoid reference to personal protective equipment, such as hi-vis and helmets, except when demonstrably relevant.”
- Reporting on crime: “Publishers must avoid portraying dangerous or criminal behavior on the roads, such as speeding, as acceptable, or those caught breaking the law as victims.”
Journalist and ATA member Laura Laker helped draft the guidelines.
“Ultimately if enough people in the road safety industry agree this is the right way to report, then it becomes best practice effectively,” said Laker.
“We will be asking media outlets to follow those guidelines, and if they don’t, we can ask why not.”
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