COMMENT & ANALYSIS: When reporting on collisions for IrishCycle.com, I try to get it right, even if I don’t always manage to do so. I get a few questions and complaints on this, so, it might be best to outline a bit of background on this reporting.
I’m also happy to discuss such by email or on Twitter, and on the comment section here (but not in the comment sections of articles relating to collisions as such discussion shouldn’t be linked to single articles as much as possible as the discussion often drifts to other collisions too and that should be kept away from articles about individual collisions).
Within legal confines and the basics of what information is known, IrishCycle.com strives to follow the Media Reporting Guidelines for Road Collisions — these were formed using feedback from policing, and road safety experts, The guidelines were formed in the UK but are largely applicable to Ireland.
Among those involved were the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, which is a body for both a UK and Irish journalists and editors.
Here are the main points from the guidelines:
(1) At all times be accurate, say what you know and, importantly, what you don’t know. Often
emergency services will release scant informationand 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.Media Reporting Guidelines for Road Collisions
What does “Within legal confines and the basics of what information is known” mean? While utterances by anybody are subject to defamation law, news publications — even online ones — tend to be held to a higher standard. There have been repeated calls for reform of our defamation laws but no action. Without reform, the risk of such as case is a risky thing for a publication or journalist in Ireland.
There is also the risk of reporting affecting the call for witnesses or the risk that reporting may be prejudicial to any potential court case relating to the collision in question.
What information is known is also key — doing this is also following the guidelines.
In Ireland, the Gardai seem conservative with the information they reveal about collisions (and crime in general) compared to even the UK and are clearly conservative compared to the United States where a huge amount of details of crime details is put on the public record.
Eyewitnesses also sometimes offer up the name of the hospital people were brought to — besides just naming this as a fact, it’s of little use to journalists as hospitals cannot give out information anymore. Those days are gone.
Regarding which information gets into headlines, I don’t think I can put this better than I did in a previous article:
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.
This is a problem in more than just Ireland. When the Velocity conference was held in Dublin, I chaired a session with both UK and US speakers outlining research on cyclists being dehumanised while motorists are nearly washed out of reporting.
Trying to include everything within legal confines can result in convoluted headlines. If you try to write the driver was in a collision some people will say that means they were in the collision outside a car, while others will understand that a driver is no longer a driver outside a car.
If you write that the driver was involved in the collision, others will say that that’s too passive. This will be even said when the same headline says that the person cycling was knocked down.
In other cases, it has not been clear in Garda press releases that vehicles were parked at the time when cyclists ran into them.
What way to report collisions in a more balanced way, rather than just parroting the Garda press releases, is maybe an issue as an ongoing discussion, and I’m happy to keep discussing it with readers. I still think IrishCycle is doing better than most publications.
One thing most of the media could start with is mostly quoting rather than mostly paraphrasing Garda press releases — quoting then makes the source of the information clear, while often the details are published as some kind of facts verified by god.
But even within the limitations outlined above, the Irish media could be doing a lot better. The following are headlines from articles covering a collision between a motorist and cyclist yesterday:
- Independent.ie: “Elderly cyclist suffers serious injuries in collision with car in Sligo”
- Irishtimes.com: “Gardaí in Sligo appeal for witnesses after cyclist in 70s is seriously injured”
- Breakingnews. ie: “Cyclist seriously injured in collision in Co Sligo”
- Thejournal.ie: “Garda investigate as cyclist injured in collision in Sligo”
- Sundayworld.com: “Cyclist (70s) injured in crash with car in Collooney, Co Sligo”
- Leitrimobserver.ie: “Cyclist has serious injuries following accident in Sligo”
- Westernpeople.ie: Gardaí appeal for witnesses after elderly cyclist is struck by car
- Donegaldaily.com: “Elderly cyclist suffers serious injuries in crash”
- Oceanfm.ie: “Female cyclist suffers serious injuries in Collooney road traffic collision”
- Midwestradio.ie: “Gardaí appeal for witnesses following serious Sligo crash”
- IrishCycle.com: “Woman in her 70s knocked off her bicycle in collision involving a car driver in Co Sligo”
And here’s a bit of a breakdown of how the coverage compares:
|Woman or cyclist||Driver referred to?||Driver or car in headline?||Clarity on how injury occurred in headline?||Accident or collision/crash?|
|Independent.ie||Elderly cyclist||Not at all||Car||Partial/indirect — in collision with car||Collision|
|Irishtimes.com||Cyclist||Not at all||Neither||No reference||None — abstract|
|Breakingnews.ie||Cyclist||Not at all||Neither||Partial/indirect — in collision||Collision|
|Thejournal.ie||Cyclist||3rd paragraph “car driver was not injured”||Neither||Partial/indirect — in collision||Collision|
|Sundayworld.com:||Cyclist||Not at all||Car||Partial — in crash with car||Crash|
|Leitrimobserver.ie||Cyclist||Not at all||Neither||Partial/indirect — in collision||Accident|
|Westernpeople.ie||Cyclist||Not at all||Car||Yes, “struck by car”||Descriptive, “struck by car”|
|Donegaldaily.com||Elderly cyclist||Not at all||Neither||Partial/indirect — in crash||Crash|
|Oceanfm.ie||Female cyclist||Not at all||Neither||Partial/indirect — in crash||Collision|
|Midwestradio.ie||No reference||Not at all||Neither||No reference||Crash and collision|
|IrishCycle.com||Woman||Headline||Driver||Yes, knocked off her bicycle||Collision and descriptive|
As a side note: After a number of requests from the Garda Press Office, IrishCycle.com has stopped naming Garda spokespeople.
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