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It’s time for Irish journalists to follow the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: The Road Collision Reporting Guidelines were launched in May 2021 to promote better reporting around road traffic collisions.

The guidelines were developed with the UK in mind, but besides things like saying Highway Code rather than Rules of the Road, there are very few practical differences.

A bit of an adjustment is needed, but nothing massive is being looked for here. It’s things like asking journalists and editors to avoid using the word ‘accident’ and use ‘collision’ or ‘crash’ instead, don’t whitewash the driver out of stories, don’t generalise, don’t act as if PPE guarantees users’ safety, and don’t downplay speeding when there’s clear evidence of how damaging it is.

According to the authors of the guidelines, the UK campaign was drawn up in collaboration with media, legal, roads policing, academic and road safety professionals, including the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, which is both a UK and Irish union for journalists and editors.

As the guidelines say, much of the media coverage of road traffic collisions where people are killed and injured on our roads “portrays collisions as unavoidable, obscures the presence of certain actors or omits crucial context as to why crashes happen and what we can do to prevent them.”

For example, the kind of reporting where drivers involved with crashes are nearly washed out of coverage as if the cars involved were driverless, needs to stop. There are loads of examples of this and other issues in the Irish media around collision reporting.

We could say that IrishCycle.com is starting a campaign — in the old tradition of campaigning journalism — to ask the Irish media to sign up to the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines. But the reality is many readers and others are already asking Irish journalists to consider the guidelines and IrishCycle.com is just lending its voice to that.

At the same time, IrishCycle.com accepts that since the guidelines were published that there has been more than a few examples of members of the public on social media expecting more from journalists than is allowed by the legal system (ie avoiding being prejudicial or risking defamation action) and the limited information given by the Gardai and other authorities.

But these issues should not be seen as a get-out-of-jail card, and such issues are faced by UK journalists too to some degree. One large issue in Ireland is repeating information without making it clear as to where the information is coming from, this false sense of authority might make for easy or quick copy to put online, in broadcasts or in newspapers, but it does nobody any good in the long run.

We’re also so used to hearing that a car crash involved ‘a car’ that it sounds like the normal thing to say. Imagine saying that a bicycle ran somebody over, it just would sound silly. But that’s what we do when motorists run over people. Neutral words and phrases can be used to avoid blaming a person ahead of a court case.

ROAD COLLISION REPORTING GUIDELINES – TEN POINTS FOR PUBLISHERS
As published on rc-rg.com

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  1. At all times be accurate, say what you know and, importantly, what you don’t know. Often emergency services will release scant information and key details won’t emerge until an inquest or court case. If further details do emerge, do update stories with the facts.
  2. Avoid use of the word ‘accident’ until the facts of a collision are known. Most collisions are predictable and before an enquiry or court case the full facts are unlikely to be known. It is particularly important to avoid the word when someone has been charged with driving offences. Using ‘crash’ or ‘collision’ instead leaves the question of who or what is to blame open, pending further details.
  3. If you’re talking about a driver, say a driver, not their vehicle. This is particularly important when describing actions such as speeding, or leaving the scene of a crash. If little is known in the aftermath of a crash, initially describe human actors as e.g., ‘driver and cyclist in collision’ or ‘two drivers in collision’, before mentioning vehicles. Where details of the crash are known, or one human actor is clearly particularly vulnerable (or slow-moving), such as pedestrians or children, publishers may find it more accurate to say one person ‘hit’ the other, e.g., ‘driver hit a child in a pushchair’, or ‘driver hit a man crossing the road’.
  4. Consider the impact on friends and relatives of publishing collision details. People deal with grief differently, and publishers should check with families when publishing injury detail.
  5. Treat publication of photos with caution, including user generated footage or imagery. Photos including number plates, or anything related to victims at the scene of a crash could cause distress to friends and relatives, particularly if they aren’t yet aware of the collision. Be wary of publishing footage that could have been taken from behind the wheel, that may be seen to endorse mobile phone use while driving.
  6. Be mindful if reporting on traffic delays not to overshadow the greater harm, of loss of life or serious injury, which could trivialise road death. Remember emergency response staff may close a road following a collision while trying to save a life.
  7. Journalists should consider whether language used negatively generalises a person or their behaviour as part of a ‘group’. Research shows that if people see a road user, such as cyclists, as an outgroup, or less than human, they are more likely to act aggressively towards them on the roads. Violence on the roads lies on the same continuum as everyday, normalised discrimination tolerated by the public. Be mindful that language insinuating there is a ‘war’ or ‘battle’ on the roads risks in itself inflaming tensions.
  8. Coverage of perceived risks on the roads should be based in fact and in context. Larger, faster vehicles have a greater potential to cause injury and death, while those on horseback, on foot and cycles are more likely to be seriously injured in a collision – figures that are reflected in road casualty figures. Providing context, such as local or national collision trends is particularly powerful in helping readers understand the scale of a problem, and avoids portraying incidents as isolated, when this is often not the case. High visibility clothing and helmets don’t guarantee users safety, and mention of these elements has a powerful impact on readers, encouraging them to apportion blame before the full facts are known.
  9. Avoid portraying law-breaking or highway code contravention as acceptable, or perpetrators as victims. An example of this is stories of speed camera use somehow ‘targeting’ road users, or causing danger on the roads. Speed is a major contributory factor in road collisions, serious injury and death on the roads and media attention for targeted enforcement of speeding, distracted driving, and impaired driving can increase awareness of—and support for—those efforts, research shows. Covering outcomes of investigations or prosecutions allows the public to see justice in action.
  10. Road safety professionals can help provide context, expertise, and advice on broader issues around road safety. Journalists aren’t expected to be experts in all fields, and it is good practice if reporting on road collisions to maintain regular contact with those experts, who can provide context or viewpoints emergency services may not mention. See our list of journalist resources and contacts on page nine.

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