On a typical day, 100 Americans lose their lives in car crashes. That is like a commercial airplane falling out of the sky every other day. Yet crashes have not generated sustained outrage and society doesn’t treat them as a public health crisis. The way the media covers crashes is partly to blame for this muted response. Fortunately, simple changes to newsroom editorial practices could increase public support for road safety and help save lives.
My evidence comes from two studies: one examined how journalists report and write about crashes, while the other examined if, and to what extent, coverage mattered — if it influenced the way people thought. The first study reviewed 200 local news stories from across the United States that described a car crash involving a person walking or biking. The second study was an experiment. We took a group of people and randomly assigned them to read one of three slightly different descriptions of the same crash. Some people read typical coverage, while others read a revised text where the driver — not the pedestrian or the vehicle — was the focus. The third group read coverage that provided more context about the crash location, and also provided broader statistics about traffic safety in the area. We then asked each person questions about the crash, to see if these minor editorial changes affected their perceptions of it.
First, the news coverage. We found that it had two key shortcomings: It tended to blame the victim through subtle grammatical choices, and it treated crashes as isolated incidents, rather than a recurring, systematic problem.
With regard to victim-blaming: It turns out that by far the most common way for the press to describe a crash is to write, “A pedestrian was hit” or “A pedestrian was hit by a car.” These sentences shift blame onto pedestrians in three ways.
First, they focus on the pedestrian, making them the star of the show. This feels like a nice gesture toward the victim, but linguistics scholars have documented that the sentence’s focus tends to garner more blame. Because pedestrians are the focus in three-quarters of crash coverage, they shoulder considerable responsibility in readers’ eyes.