Studies examine media bias in articles on bicycle-vehicle crashes

It is apparently a coincidence that two recent studies tackled the same issue at the same time, but it is no coincidence that they arrived at basically the same conclusion. The studies both looked at inaccuracy and bias in mainstream media reports on crashes involving drivers and bicyclists.

The studies both concluded that journalists too often use questionable, victim-blaming phrasing when reporting on the collisions between motor vehicles and bicycles.

The two studies were conducted by the Florida Center for Urban Transportation Research and a group of researchers from Arizona State, Texas A&M and Rutgers.

The researchers combed through articles on bicycle-motor vehicle crashes, looking for key words that indicate whether the driver or cyclist was assigned blame for the collision. Researchers also examined the articles for passive language that minimized the human role in these crashes, as well as whether journalists framed their articles as one-off incidents or put the crashes in a broader road-safety context.

The university group found that passive language was common in the 200 articles on crashes involving fatalities or serious injuries. Articles often described the collisions as events between a bicyclist and a vehicle, rather than event involving two people (the bicyclist and the driver). Many articles also referred to the crashes as “accidents.”

One researcher said, “‘Accident’ conveys inevitability. You can trace virtually every crash to something upstream, whether human error, poor street design, or something else. Almost every crash is preventable.”

Researchers also looked for counterfactual details that subtly shift blame. You can find these in reports that mention that the victim was “wearing dark clothing” or “was not wearing a helmet.” The university group found that nearly half of all articles included such details without context, implying that the victim was at least partially to blame.

“Dark clothing is irrelevant if the driver is distracted,” said the researcher, “and a helmet will not save you if the driver hits you at 60 miles per hour.”

If you or a loved one on a bicycle was hurt in a crash with a driver of a motor vehicle, contact an attorney experienced in personal injury litigation.