Study Shows Media Reports on Bicyclist Deaths are Biased

Study Shows Media Reports on Bicyclist Deaths are Biased

Consider the difference between these two sentences from a hypothetical news story describing the same event:

  1. The bicyclist entered the intersection and was struck by a car.
  2. The car’s driver made a right turn on red and struck a bicyclist using the crosswalk.

The phrasing of sentence number one suggests the bicyclist’s choices caused the collision. Sentence number two suggests just the opposite. Unfortunately, the media usually chooses sentences like number one, placing favor in the driver’s corner.

This is the finding of a recent study by two University of South Florida (USF) researchers, Julie Bond and Erin Sheffels, who analyzed numerous news reports on fatal bicycle accidents. Specifically, Bond and Sheffels conducted a “critical discourse analysis” of almost 200 news reports of 94 cycling deaths in the Tampa area between 2009 and 2018.

The analysis revealed patterns of phrasing and word usage that subtly, but consistently, put blame on the bicyclist. When bicyclists were struck, many times the media report would simply refer to a “truck” or a “car,” without mentioning the car or truck driver’s name. The reports would often use passive voice language, such as stating that a bicyclist “was hit by a car,” rather than explaining the motor vehicle driver’s role in the event. This lack of focus on agency or decision-making of the driver silently assigns blame to the person on the bike. It suggests that only the actions of the bicyclist mattered to what happened.

Lack of Context, Sociopolitical Biases & Other Issues

The analysis also revealed other problems with coverage. Most media reports lacked context, making each death seem like a random, unconnected event. This creates the impression that bicyclist deaths are unavoidable “acts of God” — like lightning strikes — instead of preventable events caused by predictable factors like negligent motorists or poor road design.

While all bicyclists were subject to this bias, people of lower income were even more likely to be blamed for their deaths. Researchers Bond and Sheffield found that they were more likely to have blame placed on them, while more affluent bicyclists might receive more sympathetic coverage, such as comments from grieving family members.

To some degree, the media’s coverage of such stories often took on the bias implicit in police reports. Statements from police were often parroted in media accounts, even when that information was inaccurate or itself biased. This further reinforces the unfortunate blaming of victims. In recent years, reporters have discussed inflammatory topics like suicide and sexual assault with greater sensitivity and awareness. Reporters should read the findings of the USF researchers and think carefully about how to fairly cover bicyclist deaths as well.

Proud Legal Advocates for the Wrongfully Injured

At Roman & Gaynor, our Florida bicycle accident attorneys are adamant about providing a voice to injured bicyclists, and the families of those who lost their lives in bicycle accidents. We know the truth is often far from what media reports claim. By standing up for your rights and insisting on your fair treatment as your claim progresses, we hope to secure a maximized compensation amount to cover all of your damages. This is what we have been doing for more than 50 combined years of legal practice, and we do it well.

To schedule a free case evaluation with our personal injury lawyers in Clearwater, Florida, call 727.877.1212 at any time.

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