Draft guidelines produced by University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy in collaboration with experts
Road danger fundamentally impacts our daily lives and how safe we feel on our streets; collisions and their causes are too often misinterpreted or misrepresented in media
Public consultation on the guidelines begins today
London, UK. Monday 28th September 2020. The UK’s first media reporting guidelines for road collisions are being launched for consultation to help journalists, broadcasters and publishers improve the public debate around road safety – and members of the public, interested groups and organisations, are invited to respond.
Media reporting influences how we tackle the issues facing society, and while guidelines already exist for reporting on suicide, children and refugees, for example, none specifically guide best practice around reporting of road collisions.
Road crashes claim more than 1,700 lives a year in the UK alone, and cause life-changing injuries for thousands more. Worldwide, road collisions are now the leading cause of death for young people (aged 15-29). On a more subtle level, road danger fundamentally impacts our daily lives and how safe we feel on our streets.
While there are examples of good reporting, as recognised by the Active Travel Media Awards, collisions and their causes are too often misinterpreted or misrepresented. By confusing public debate this risks hampering genuine progress in tackling road crime and improving road safety. Road danger disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable in society and the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare inequalities in how we use our streets, with increases in road collisions despite a dramatic fall in road traffic.
The draft guidelines are produced by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy in collaboration with national roads policing, academics and experts in the field, road safety charities, and the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, and advised by IMPRESS. The Guidelines’ four main clauses speak to core journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness, non-discrimination and justice.
The guidelines, if adopted, will form an “industry standard” to help pave the way for better reporting in broadcasting, online and in print.
Chris Boardman, British Cycling Policy Advisor, said: “Having worked for nearly two decades to get people riding bikes for health, leisure and utility journeys, I can say categorically, that reporting of cycling activity and particular incidents, has a huge influence on perception. For good or ill, words really do matter, they paint a picture and influence both how we feel about a topic and how seriously we take a crime.
“My British Cycling colleagues and I have been frustrated for years about how tragic occurrences are often painted as unavoidable accidents rather than the result of very avoidable criminal behaviour. So we very much welcome that this topic is at last being addressed and that guidelines are being crafted to ensure those who are truly responsible for road violence are the ones in the spotlight.”
John Ranson from the National Union of Journalists' ethics council said: "Good reporting should inform. It should help the public understand what has happened. And good opinion journalism should provoke debate and challenge the audience. But too much of the media's coverage of road collisions has played into and reinforced lazy generalisations. We hope these guidelines will equip journalists to report on road collisions with accuracy and humanity, bringing the same standards of integrity to this topic as to any other."
Professor Rachel Aldred, director of the Active Travel Academy, at the University of Westminster, said: “Research shows that how crashes are reported shapes how we think about and respond to them, sometimes in quite problematic ways. So it is crucial that journalists have guidance helping them with current best practice around road collision reporting, as exists for other issues such as suicide and domestic violence.”
Ruth Cadbury MP (Labour), Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling & Walking, said: "I am pleased this important topic is being looked at. The way road collisions are reported has a big impact on society's view of vulnerable road users. I know from the group's inquiry 'Cycling and the Justice System' the devastating impact road collisions can have on families, friends and communities. It's essential that we don't, as a society, desensitise and position these incidents as inevitable and we will urge our Parliamentary colleagues to support these guidelines.”
Selaine Saxby MP (Conservative), Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling & Walking, said: "We have media reporting guidelines for a whole variety of serious societal issues and so it is important that road collisions are included. While there are examples of good practice in news, often the reporting around this subject could be much improved. I would encourage people to respond to the consultation to make their views known so we can improve society's understanding of these issues together."
Martin Porter QC, said: “Reporting Guidelines for journalism about road traffic crashes and criminal offences committed on our roads are long overdue and of vital importance. Language matters. The language of journalists, with any accompanying prejudices and assumptions, are so easily imported into the attitudes of road users and into our criminal and civil justice systems.
He added: "It may seem harmless to speak of vehicles speeding, running lights or running people down, thereby implying no human responsibility, or of cyclists with broken arms and legs not wearing a helmet but the knock on effects contribute to increased danger on our roads and to failings throughout the justice system. Keeping these guidelines firmly in mind will be so valuable in raising the quality of journalism, debate and public attitudes when dealing with road danger and justice.”
The four clauses each align with journalistic values that inform existing reporting guidelines - with more detailed explanations and examples on the website. These are:
1.1 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
1.2 Discrimination: publishers must avoid using negative generalisations of road users, and must not use dehumanising language or that which may incite violence or hatred against a road user in comment and news coverage
1.3 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
1.4 Reporting on crime: Publishers must avoid portraying dangerous or criminal behaviour on the roads, such as speeding, as acceptable, or those caught breaking the law as victims
The closing date for consultation responses is midnight on Sunday 8 November. Responses will be assessed by our working group and the first Road Collision Reporting Guidelines will be officially launched at this year’s Active Travel Media Awards, on 26 November 2020, and published on a dedicated website.