Press reports avoid human agency for cars but not motorcycles
As we've discussed in the past, reporters have an unusual habit of avoiding any implication that a driver of a vehicle had anything to do with that vehicle's hitting people or objects, running off the road, or any other activity. That's often not the same for bicyclists or motorcyclists.
Tom Vanderbilt wrote about a UK study which asked people to describe a scene. When a car appeared in the picture, people generally referred to it as an object, even when the driver was visible. Meanwhile, most participants noted the human bicyclist, even when they could only see the bicycle in the picture.
A Richmond Times-Dispatch road fatality roundup carries the sad news that an Arlington cyclist died in a crash earlier this month. It also provides some entertaining examples of reporter contortions:
- "Johnny O. Bond, 80, of Mayodan, N.C., was a passenger in a car that was leaving a business when it was struck by another car on U.S. 220."
- "Janet E. Reichley, 60, of Triangle ... was driving east on Fuller Heights Road when the vehicle crossed onto Perry Street and hit a tree." She is the subject of the sentence as long as the vehicle was driving, but as soon as it hit a tree, it linguistically acted of its own accord.
- "Heidi Hrdlicka, 33, of Arlington County was killed May 12 after a car hit a bicycle she was on at North Cleveland Street and Lee Highway in Arlington."
- Kimberly M. Dulaney, 24, and 3-year-old Samantha B. Dulaney, both of Floyd County, were killed Sunday after a car they were in tried to avoid a goose and spun out and hit a tree." Cars can try to avoid geese, now?
Meanwhile, in two crashes involving motorcyclists, the sentences do place the operator as the subject:
- "Franklin T. Garrett III of Annandale died Monday at Inova Fairfax Hospital after he lost control of a southbound motorcycle that day in a curve on South Washington Street and fell and slid into a stopped car near Tinners Hill Street, authorities said."
- "Chase A. Smith, 20, of Chesapeake was killed May 2 after he wrecked a motorcycle and was thrown more than 100 feet into the woods off Taylor Road in Chesapeake."
If you're on a motorcycle and hit something, you could "lose control," "slide into a stopped car," and "wreck" the motorcycle, but if you're driving, your car is the one to leave a business, avoid a goose, cross the street, and hit a tree.
On the other hand, in this WTOP story says that a man lost control of his SUV and crashed into an electrical pole near Dupont Circle yesterday.
Dehumanizing language isn't the only issue with crash coverage. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Vanderbilt talks about how crash reporting often excludes context, like how drivers or road designers could have prevented the crashes. To the Times-Dispatch's and Virginia police's credit, at least, the crash items above did mention whether the drivers were wearing seat belts and the motorcyclists helmets.
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