Discover and understand the editorial anti-patterns we search for
Media framing is a significant factor in how people and communities interpret, understand, and respond to information. There are two major types of framing:
- episodic – incidents are reported as isolated events
- thematic – events are compared, and underlying factors are explored
Articles should include a number of thematic phrases to help contextualize the incident and provide possible remediations:
- Road design
- Speed limit
- Number of lanes
- Lane width
- Presence of sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes
- Lighting conditions
- Turn radius
- Road signage
- Statistics & trends
- Recent crashes locally
- Statewide and national trends
- Local residents
- Elected officials
- Transportation safety experts
- Safety initiatives
- Vision Zero
- Complete Streets
- DWI checkpoints
- High-visibility enforcement
One study found that only about 1 in 20 articles about car crashes employed thematic elements, such as road design or crash statistics. These thematic elements are vital to remind readers that car crashes aren't random events, but natural byproducts of our built environment and the choices people make. Furthermore, readers are more likely to recognize and support preventative measures and solutions when presented with thematic articles.
Counterfactuals are true statements which tend to imply that outcomes would be changed if only people had acted differently. They place a greater burden on the individuals involved, rather than the systemic nature of the underlying situation. Research demonstrates that the presence of counterfactual statements shifts blame toward the victim.
Because car crashes are greatly influenced by systemic factors, such as road design, societal norms and expectations, planning, enforcement, etc., reducing and eliminating counterfactual statements is critical to getting past victim-blaming to achieve comprehensive safety.
Counterfactual statements are a serious anti-pattern because they:
- obscure the systemic nature of crashes,
- shift blame onto victims, and
- absolve actors of irresponsible behavior
Our system is designed to detect a number of counterfactual statements in the following categories:
|No helmet||A bicyclist was injured after being struck by a car. He wasn't wearing a helmet.||Implies the bicyclist is at fault. Ignores the contribution of the driver and poor road design. Implies outcome would have been different if a helmet were worn.|
|Dark clothing||A pedestrian was hit and killed last night. She was wearing dark-colored clothes.||Places all the blame on the victim, without discussing road design elements like street lights. Implies that had lighter-color clothing been worn, the crash wouldn't have happened. Distracts from the nationwide trend of rapidly increasing pedestrian fatalities (50% increase in the past decade) that cannot be rationally attributed to clothing color.|
|Crosswalk usage||The woman was injured after being struck by a vehicle. She was not using a crosswalk.||Implies the woman is at fault because a crosswalk was not used, but ignores road design and driver responsibility. Does not discuss whether crosswalks are even available, or if they are within reasonable walking distance. Also ignores the fact that most pedestrian injuries and deaths occur at marked crosswalks.|
|Road closed/delay||The crash caused road closures along Rt 10, delaying traffic for upwards of 4 hours.||Focuses on the inconvenience for other drivers, rather than the injuries or death that may have occurred. Reinforces the prioritization of speed over safety.|
|Environmental conditions||A vehicle struck and killed a bicyclist. The roads were wet and it was dark out.||Absolves actors of responsibility to safely operate their vehicle according to current weather conditions (e.g. drive slower when it is raining or snowy). Ignores road safety factors like quality and timeliness of snow or ice removal, or presence of street lights.|
|Impairment (alcohol, drugs, drowsiness)||Alcohol and drugs do not appear to be a factor.||When speculative statements are made, the article introduces bias in the form of rushing to the actor's defense before an investigation is even completed. Whether or not impairment was the cause of the crash, mitigating factors are not discussed.|
|No protective equipment||The bicyclist was not wearing a reflective vest and did not have a light.||Places all the blame on the victim, but ignores road safety factors like street illumination, safe bike lanes and sidewalks, etc.|
|VRU in roadway||The pedestrian was walking in the roadway when he was struck.||Places fault on the pedestrian, without discussing the presence or absence of sidewalks, or why the driver was not able to operate their vehicle safely.|
|Driver didn't see||The driver told us they could not see the pedestrian until it was too late.||Article allows the driver to shape the narrative in their favor and absolve themselves of responsibility. Does not discuss the issue of drivers not being able to see reasonable hazards.|
Counterfactuals typically correspond directly with the absence of thematic elements. The good news is that it's often easy to improve news reporting by observing these relationships:
Status-quo reporting |
How an incident might be reported today
Critical analysis |
Let's spend a minute to examine this
Bridging the gap to deliver a higher quality article
|The bicyclist was killed when he was hit by an SUV trying to pass him. He wasn't wearing a helmet.||
The last sentence is likely to evoke feelings of blame: he should have been wearing a helmet! But wearing a helmet wouldn't have changed the outcome of him being struck. This article makes only factual statements, but there are many things not being said:
The bicyclist was killed when he was hit by an SUV trying to pass him. |
|A pedestrian was left seriously injured after attempting to cross the street. The pedestrian did not use a crosswalk.||
The last sentence is likely to evoke feelings of blame: this is what happens when you don't use a crosswalk! The author is certainly sticking to facts, but we should also ask:
||A pedestrian was left seriously injured after attempting to cross the street. The pedestrian did not use a crosswalk. Satellite imagery suggests the nearest crosswalk was at least a quarter mile away – a 5 minute walk – in each direction. A number of pedestrian-vehicle crashes have taken place over the past year, calling into question the safety of a street home to many outdoor restaurants and boutique shops. We spoke with a local restaurant owner: "There's a bus stop across the street, but riders have to run across the street to get to our shop. I told the local bus authority months ago they need to move the bus stop to this side of the street."|
As demonstrated, counterfactual statements obscure the underlying causes of crashes. Counterfactuals tend to preclude discussion about systemic factors and instead shift blame on individuals, including the victims. Statements insinuate a different outcome was possible if only individuals acted differently, and articles with counterfactual statements virtually never go into depth to discuss remediation.
1a. an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance
2a. an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignoranceMerrian-Webster
The tool marks usages of the word "accident" as problematic because the word accident implies a sense of faultlessness and unavoidability. Over 90% of car crashes are caused by human error, and virtually all causes of these crashes are known and avoidable, mostly by changing behavior and design.
When crashes come down to a handful of causes — most commonly distracted driving, speeding, tailgating, alcohol and drug usage, and following too closely — we cannot conclude the causes are unforeseen, and while carelessness may be a factor, these are not matters of mere chance, fortune, or acts of God.
We subscribe to the mentality that all accidents are crashes, but not all crashes are accidents; therefore, a higher burden of proof is required to use the word "accident". Some news agencies express worry that if they use the word crash, someone might file a libel/defamation suit saying the agency is blaming them for the incident. These fears are unwarranted and unrealistic, but there are other words that are recommended, in order of precedence:
There has been notable shift in sentiment toward the use of the word "crash":
- The Associated Press recommends avoiding the word "accident" if negligence is claimed or proven, as of 2016.
- The NYPD no longer uses the word "accident" to describe car crashes, and has renamed its Accident Investigation Squad to the Collision Investigation Squad, as of 2013.
- The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has banned the word "accident", as of 2001.
The tool is context-aware and does not punish uses of the word "accident" if it's part of a direct quotation or a proper noun, such as investigative bodies (e.g. the Boston Accident Reconstruction Unit).
Object-based reference deals with how reporters and readers refer to entities. This gives rise to the dichotomy: object-based language vs. people-based language.
Research shows that when referring to drivers, language is usually object-based instead, giving agency to cars, traffic, etc. On the other hand, vulnerable road users are nearly always referenced in human terms: pedestrian, bicyclist, person, man, woman.
Giving agency to objects instead of people obscures who the actors are, and tends to shift blame toward the victims.
- A bicyclist was hit by an SUV. → A bicyclist was hit by the driver of an SUV.
- The car jumped the curb. → The driver drove over the curb.
- The automobile remained at the scene. → The driver remained at the scene.
Additionally, using object-based language personifies objects in downright weird ways:
- The vehicle fled the scene.
- The automobile co-operated with police investigators.
Agency discovers issues with agentive vs. non-agentive sentences. Research demonstrates that readers place more blame on victims when reading non-agentive sentences, i.e. sentences that don't include the perpetrator or one doing the action.
|A pedestrian was struck.||Non-agentive|
|A driver struck a pedestrian.||Agentive|
|A pedestrian was struck by a driver.||Agentive|
Readers identify agents as having ability to cause harm, which helps share responsibility for a mishap. Ensure that all sentences that discuss crashes include an agent.
Focus identifies who the subject of the sentence is, and hence who is at the center of attention. Readers assign more blame to the focus of the sentence. News articles that cover crashes between vehicles and vulnerable road users place the focus of the sentences on the VRU over 70% of the time.
This difference is illustrated below, with the focus (subject) underlined:
- A pedestrian was struck by an SUV.
- An SUV struck a pedestrian.