Newspaper coverage did not accurately reflect real risk.


The title is the conclusion from a study.
Until we get the media on board they will undo anything we try to do.

Title and abstract follows.

Newspaper framing of fatal motor vehicle crashes in four Midwestern cities in the United States, 1999–2000

S Connor and K WesolowskiDepartment of Pediatrics, Case Western Reserve University and Community Safety and Resource Center, Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Email:

Objective: To examine the public health messages conveyed by newspaper coverage of fatal motor vehicle crashes and determine the extent to which press coverage accurately reflects real risks and crash trends.
Methods: Crash details were extracted from two years of newspaper coverage of fatal crashes in four Midwestern cities in the United States. Details and causal factors identified by reporters were compared to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) using odds ratios and two tailed z tests.
Results: Papers covered 278 fatal crashes over the two year period, in contrast to 846 fatal crashes documented in FARS. Papers assigned blame in 90% of crashes covered, under-reported restraint use and driver’s risk of death, failed to reflect the protective value of restraints, and misrepresented the roles played by alcohol and teen drivers.
Conclusion: Newspaper coverage did not accurately reflect real risk. Papers presented fatal crashes as dramas with a victim/villain storyline; in keeping with this narrative strategy, papers were most likely to cover stories where a driver survived to take the blame. By highlighting crashes that diverge from the norm, focusing on the assignment of blame to a single party, and failing to convey the message that preventive practices like seatbelt use increase odds for survival, newspapers removed crashes from a public health context and positioned them as individual issues. Public health practitioners can work with media outlets in their areas to draw attention to misrepresentations and change the way these stories are framed.
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4 replies
  1. danc
    danc says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’m reading “How to Live Dangerously ” by Warwick Carirns (subtitle: The Hazards of Helment, Bacteria and the Risk of Living to Safe). Media saturation (TV, Radio, Cable, Internet) also plays a role in overloading, overdosing individuals with “terrible events” that cause us to “worry too much” about events that rare or unusual.

  2. acline
    acline says:

    None of this is surprising given the structural biases of journalism, especially re: “crashes as dramas”

    But this situation is not hopeless. Don’t hesitate to contact a reporter to discuss his/her framing of a news story. They get locked into master narratives. Part of our job should be to suggest alternative narratives.

  3. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    The job of newspapers is to sell newspapers, not communicate “news.” Whatever that may be.

    A story with a clear “bad guy” villian sells newspapers. A story about infrastructure and its influence upon driver behaviour does not. A story that disturbs its readers, breaks their assumptions about the world they live in and motivates them to advocate for change is a definite non-seller.

    Newspapers make most of their income from advertising. Just look at the amount of auto advertising in the local newspaper to see where their interests really lie.

  4. danc
    danc says:

    @Mr Love: FYI: Newspapers depend on advertising for on ~80% of their income. Newspaper generally maintain a separation between the editorial and advertising, even in my Podunky once a week local paper. Writing about traffic, accidents is difficult is what get from the study. I don’t by the “first this, then that” feeling of direct cause and effect.
    Acline has a clue, challenge the reporters assumptions, provide alternative. Have you ever heard of letter to the editor?

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