New guidelines have been created for reporting on road collisions, following in the footsteps of similar best practice on stories relating to suicide, domestic violence and refugees.
The draft guidelines, which have been put out for consultation in the hope of becoming an agreed industry standard, come after years of cyclists feeling frustrated by road deaths being painted as “unavoidable accidents” rather than “the result of very avoidable criminal behaviour”.
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Although best practice reporting on road collisions does exist, John Ranson from the NUJ’s ethics council said “too much” of it “has played into and reinforced lazy generalisations”. He added that journalists need to report with more accuracy and humanity.
The new suggested rules could ban the use of the word “accident” when describing collisions and crashes to meet higher standards of impartiality, especially when the facts of what happened are not yet known.
They also want journalists to avoid mention of helmets, high-vis or any other protective equipment “except when demonstrably relevant” and call for human actors to always be mentioned in coverage of collisions – for example by saying a driver, not a car, hit a cyclist.
A clause on discrimination would tell publishers to avoid making negative generalisations or use dehumanising language or words that “may incite violence or hatred against a road user”.
The guidelines also call for publishers to avoid portraying speeding, or any other dangerous or criminal behaviour on the roads, as acceptable or anyone caught breaking the law as victims.
The guidelines have been produced by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy in collaboration with the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, state-approved press regulator Impress, road safety charities and a range of policing, academic and expert figures.
According to Professor Rachel Aldred, who heads up the Active Travel Academy, how crashes are reported “shapes how we think about and respond to them, sometimes in quite problematic ways”.
A study carried out in the US last year revealed that “shifting from pedestrian-focused to driver-focused language reduced victim-blaming and increased perceived fault of the driver”.
“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,” Professor Aldred said.
Former Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman, who now advises on policy to the sport’s governing body British Cycling, said he has noticed for 20 years how reporting of cycling activity and particular incidents “has a huge influence on perception”.
He added: “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.”
Martin Porter QC, a personal injury and clinical negligence barrister whose Twitter says he “enjoys fighting for the cause of cycling and individual cyclists”, called the guidelines “long overdue and of vital importance”.
“Language matters,” he said. “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.
“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 most respected guidelines for industry standards outside the Editors’ Code of Practice are the Samaritans’ guidelines for reporting on suicide. Others include those a feminist campaign group for reporting on domestic violence, and by UN agencies for reporting on refugees and children’s issues.
The closing date for responses to the consultation is midnight on Sunday 8 November ahead of the official launch at the Active Travel Media Awards on 26 November. Read the draft guidelines in full here.
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