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Story Arcs and Monsters of the Week: How reporting presents road safety and danger

I’ve recently been researching how media reporting of road collisions repeats and reproduces specific discourses about the safety of walking and cycling. My interest in this area stems from recent research in which the reporting of cyclist and pedestrian causalities was found to present such events as isolated ‘episodes’ disconnected from each other. Subsequent research showed that such ‘episodic’ framing led to a lower level of concern amongst test audiences for addressing the infrastructural sources of danger in road collisions. The authors suggested that journalists should frame their reporting of road casualties within a wider road safety theme by making references to other comparable collisions and casualty statistics to highlight the existence of a wider problem.

I was interested to see how these aspects of reporting might repeat and reinforce some of the common discourses around cyclist and pedestrian safety – such as that cyclists always ignore traffic rules and that pedestrians don’t pay attention. These discourses tend to place the blame for traffic collisions on the victims, and in doing so also direct public attention away from the sources of road danger. Such sources of danger range from poor road design to the unequal physical power relations between motor vehicles and unprotected cyclists and pedestrians

I looked at a sample of articles reporting on fatal road collisions over the last eight years using a method called critical discourse analysis. Whilst the sample was necessarily quite small, two things stood out. Firstly, cyclist fatalities in my sample were in fact framed in relation to other similar collisions, but this story arc consisted solely of references to a rising ‘body count’ of dead cyclists rather than to common contextual or institutional factors. This implied a safety problem with cyclists themselves; the only common element in the reporting was that they kept dying. Pedestrian fatalities meanwhile were not presented as part of a road safety problem at all, but rather as disconnected events. This was despite there being many more pedestrian than cyclist fatalities.

The second thing that stood out was how car drivers were represented – or not. In most of the articles, car drivers were less prominent than the pedestrian or cyclist, often being replaced with references to the car itself. However, in articles where the car driver failed to stop, they were presented much more prominently and with qualifying terms such as ‘hit-and-run driver’ and ‘joyrider’. Such terms framed these particular drivers as ‘monsters of the week’: foregrounding them as a source danger, but as an exceptional and episodic one. This contrasted with the other collisions, in which the backgrounding of drivers tended to deemphasise the day-to-day dangers and responsibilities that attend driving large vehicles at speed close to unprotected pedestrians and cyclists.

These aspects of media reporting are important because they shape public understandings of the sources and prevalence of danger on our roads. This in turn shapes understandings of what policies and interventions might be needed to address such danger. My research – and that conducted by others – suggests that existing patterns in reporting road collisions tend to direct public attention away from relevant infrastructural and institutional causes of these dangers. In light of this ongoing area of research, reporting guidelines that address issues such as episodic framing, victim blaming, and the unequal physical power relations involved in collisions, are an important step in enabling more accurate public understanding of our road danger problem.

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