Guidelines urging journalists to avoid the use of the word “accident” when reporting on road collisions and refer to drivers rather than cars have been launched to change public attitudes with sensitive reporting.
The guidelines, put together by journalist Laura Laker with the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy, have been finalised following a consultation on a draft version last year. They hope to create a new industry standard similar to the work done by Samaritans on suicide reporting.
The Active Travel Academy described reporting of road safety issues and collisions as a “challenge and a dilemma” for journalists: “Death and injury on the road is not new but still matters.”
It said the ten clauses of the guidelines relate to “core journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness, non-discrimination and justice”.
One-to-one discussions with journalists and editors found some disagreed that using the word “accident” is always problematic while others felt avoiding saying “cyclist” is impractical even though research has shown it brings negative connotations.
Although some adaptations have been made to the draft guidance, in particular to make them more succinct and clear, the recommendation to avoid the word “accident” remains in the second clause.
The guidelines, created in collaboration with the NUJ’s ethics council, urge it to be replaced with crash, collision, or incident and to replace references to a car hitting something with the driver doing so and then he/she/they instead of any subsequent “it”.
The guidelines also call on journalists to avoid insinuating a “war” between cyclists and drivers and otherwise consider whether language negatively generalises or dehumanises people in groups like cyclists.
Guardian political correspondent Peter Walker has on various occasions written about how the media feeding or reinforcing negative messages to the public about cyclists “can potentially play a role in how careful they are when driving”.
The guidelines also ask the media to put references to injuries or deaths before any traffic delays, and add context such as any details of how many collisions happen at a particular location to avoid any misconception that they are isolated incidents.
Professor Rachel Aldred, director of the Active Travel Academy, said: “We know much good road collision reporting already exists and we hope that the guidelines will help spread this good practice.
“The research tells us that language matters, as it helps shape how we see and treat others. So for instance referring to drivers rather than only their vehicles helps remind us that behind every vehicle – be it a car, an HGV, a cycle or a motorcycle – is a person making decisions that affect the safety of others.”
Examples of bad practice include:
- A teenager was taken to hospital following a crash between a car and a cyclist
- Tributes left at scene after infant killed in pram crash
- A woman was “ploughed” into while crossing the road
Easy ways to improve these sentences, according to the guidance, would be:
- A teenager was taken to hospital following a crash between a driver and a cyclist
- Tributes left at scene where infant in pushchair killed after being hit by driver
- A driver hit a woman who was crossing the road
Professor Sally Kyd, head of the Leicester Law School, said she was “frustrated” by the “inconsistent” ways some publications report on road safety issues.
“I have seen newspapers complaining about speed cameras and the ‘war on motorists’ on one page, whilst on another page in the same edition there is a report on sentencing of a road death case where the defendant is portrayed as a monster whose sentence is wholly inadequate, despite the fact that the main reason they were convicted was that they were speeding at the time they collided with the deceased.
“As well as individual reporting being important, I think editors have a duty to ensure a consistent approach.”
Victoria Lebrec, head of policy, campaigns and communications at charity RoadPeace which supports road crash victims, lost her leg after she was hit by a lorry driver while cycling in London’s Old Street in 2014. The driver later admitted careless driving.
She pointed to a Metro story about her which read: “A cyclist who was nearly killed and lost her leg after she was hit by a skip lorry has hugged and forgiven the driver who was fined £750 for his role in the accident.”
“It reads as though the skip lorry is to blame for the crash,” she said. “And why am I forgiving someone if it was an accident? And what would the role of the driver be, given it was an accident? What’s he even being fined for?”
Ten road collision reporting guidelines for journalists:
- Be accurate and make sure what is known and what is not known about an incident
- Avoid using the word “accident” until the facts are known, especially when a driver has been charged
- Refer to drivers, not their vehicles
- Consider the impact on the bereaved before publishing details of injuries in particular
- Be wary of publishing photos or footage that show number plates or could identify a victim to their relatives. Also be wary of using user-generated footage that could have been taken from behind the wheel
- When reporting on traffic delays, be mindful not to undermine any loss of life or serious injury
- Consider whether any language used negatively generalises a person or their behaviour as part of a “group”, such as cyclists. Language insinuating a “war” or “battle” can inflame tensions between road users
- Coverage of perceived risks on the roads should be based in fact and in context, bearing in mind that larger, faster vehicles have more potential to cause harm than those on foot, bike or horseback
- Avoid portraying law-breaking or highway code contravention as acceptable, or perpetrators as victims – for example speeding drivers being “targeted” by speed cameras
- Speak to road safety professionals (list of contacts in full guidelines below) for context, expertise and broader advice