Why we need media reporting guidelines for road safety

There’s a problem with how we talk about our roads. From news reports on “accidents” to who gets blamed for road danger in comment pieces, our media sources sometimes flip the sources of death and injury on their head.

Language and accuracy matter, and too often reporting contributes to making the roads less safe.

That’s why the Active Travel Academy has drafted media reporting guidelines which we hope broadcasters and publishers will adopt, just as they have adopted guidelines for reporting on suicide or domestic violence.

There is excellent reporting out there – , but there is also less thoughtful output. For example, the majority (61%) of coverage of cyclists is broadly negative, focusing on road danger, criminality or bad behaviour, although studies have shown cyclists are generally far more law-abiding than motorists.

Research has demonstrated that how journalists describe and discuss crashes affects how people see the causes of and solutions to road danger. Not only that, it influences how we treat others on the roads – with language that dehumanises other road users, often cyclists, predicting aggression and violence between road users. Those who cycle regularly will tell you they wince when they see the latest article or TV programme about so-called “lycra louts”.

It also affects how our legal system tackles law-breakers on the roads. Those working in the criminal justice system, from police, magistrates and jurors to coroners and judges, all read the news. When they read pieces that exaggerate the dangers presented by cyclists or pedestrians, it may affect their decision-making. Conversely, when they read that “a car”, rather than “a driver”, has caused injury or damage, it trivialises the dangers imposed on the most vulnerable road users by bad drivers.

One only has to read the comments under online news articles about motorists and cyclists to see how prejudices can be reinforced by ill-informed “keyboard warriors”, most of whom will be eligible for jury service.

Media reporting has a direct influence on how safe we feel on our streets. Journalists can’t be experts in all fields, so we want to help reporters, broadcasters and publishers be as accurate and fair as possible when reporting on road collisions and road safety.

We have written these guidelines with representatives from national roads policing, the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, road safety and legal experts, academics, and with advice from the independent journalism regulator Impress. Reporting guidelines already exist to protect the most vulnerable in society in other areas of life, and with road crashes claiming more than 1,700 lives a year and permanently altering thousands more, how we talk about the most vulnerable on our roads matters, too.

The four clauses each align with journalistic values that inform existing reporting guidelines – . These are:

o Impartiality: publishers must not use the term “accident” when describing road collisions – “collision” or “crash” are more accurate, especially when the facts of the incident are not known.

o Discrimination: publishers must avoid using negative generalisations of road users, and must not use dehumanising language or that which may incite violence or hatred against a road user.

o Accuracy: coverage of perceived risks on the roads should above all be accurate, based in fact and context. Publishers should make mention of human actors in a collision, and avoid reference to personal protective equipment, such as hi-vis and helmets, except when demonstrably relevant.

o Reporting on crime: publishers must avoid portraying dangerous or criminal behaviour on the roads, such as speeding, as acceptable, or those caught breaking the law as victims.

We want to hear from you – whether you are a member of the public, organisation or group. Tell us what you think of our draft guidelines, how they will affect you or your work, and anything you’d like to see improved.

The consultation closes on 8 November at midnight, and the guidelines will be launched on 26 November. You can also submit a response to the consultation by email at [email protected]

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