It’s a little story.
A short item in the police blotter section of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper tells of a collision between an SUV and a bicycle.
After reporting that the northbound cyclist was in the righthand lane, and was hit by the SUV, the reporter included the line, “The bicyclist was not wearing a helmet.”
That line implies that the cyclist was at fault. But the information about the crash said the SUV was coming from the opposite direction, and turning into a business. So it should have yielded to oncoming traffic, including the cyclist. The item did not point out that the SUV failed to yield to the cyclist. Instead, we learn that the cyclist was not wearing a helmet. There is no mandatory helmet law for adults in the state of Texas or the city of Austin. The information is irrelevant.
What would be relevant is whether the police ticketed the CRV driver for failure to yield. After all, the cyclist had to be taken to a nearby hospital with minor injuries.
This is the kind of little thing that can have negative repercussions. Bike-hating drivers who see the item will shake their heads and cluck their tongues, and mutter about those no-good cyclists.
Why didn’t the paper include a line about the driver being at fault in this case?
“We do not assign blame in straight news stories unless quoting/citing a police report or spokesman,” tweeted the Statesman’s social media editor, in reply to an outraged cyclist’s inquiry.
The Bike Noob worked in the news media for 16 years before becoming a journalism professor. I can explain a little about how this sort of thing happens, although I don’t defend it.
Newsrooms, like all organizations, operate on a set of routines. Collecting items from the police blotter is a matter of routine, handled by one of several reporters assigned to the police beat. Most blotter stories are short, because by newsroom standards, they don’t affect many people. That’s the situation here.
Once the reporter gets the information from the police, she writes it up, and moves on to the next story. Since only minor injuries were involved, it isn’t worth the reporter’s time and effort to get more details from the police. So she misses the chance to dig deeper and find out if the police are blaming the driver for the collision.
But the helmet info was probably included in the incident report filed by the police, so she dutifully made note of that.
I once worked in a TV newsroom with a policy of stating whether a cyclist wore a helmet whenever we reported on a cycling crash. Most of us weren’t cyclists. It seemed reasonable to include that information. We didn’t consider that we were making the cyclist appear to be at fault for not wearing a helmet.
But that’s just what happened here. While the paper did not “assign” blame to the cyclist, by reporting that she wasn’t wearing a helmet, and not reporting any action against the motorist, only the cyclist was put in a bad light.
What will it take to correct this prevailing attitude? Keep calling it to the attention of editors. Things aren’t really going to change, though, until more reporters and editors join the ranks of cyclists, and are alert to implications that such a seemingly innocuous line could have.