On Media Fairness in Reporting

Since I've been producing Streetfilms (at last count 196) rarely do I come across work in our field that I find monumentally enlightening, savvy, or high-caliber. But the latest blog post from David Hembrow's "A View from the Cycle Path..." contains an embedded video produced by Mark Wagenbuur that left me in awe. The video examines the media and public response to a road incident in The Netherlands between a reckless driver and three cyclists hit while they were stopped waiting for a traffic light.  Please watch it thru, it should be seen by everyone.

After you finish rubbing your eyes and wondering if you really just saw that, think about it: it's completely fair to say wherever you live in the United States, you've never seen reporting like that - not even if the victims had died. Not even if they were high profile actors or members of society.  Not even if juicy, dramatic video existed of the crash itself.

We've got a tough hill to climb if we want to see quality reporting using that kind of terminology. For instance, here in New York City we are dealing with a press that's salivates anytime they hear anything about "bikes". Pavlov would be proud. The television and print media portrays bikes as if they were menace to society, equating us to be the latest bedbug in need of extermination. The constant barrage of late is unrelenting, depressing and unfair.

In particular CBS 2 in NYC has devoted so much time to negative bicycling stories - and constantly getting the facts wrong - you have to wonder how much of it is sloppy, easy reporting and how much a vendetta.  After all, this is the same network that has chosen to use "Bike Bedlam" as their choice buzz phrase to file many of these stories under. Yet everytime a pedestrian or cyclist is hurt or killed by an out-of-control driver, they refuse to see a trend to start lumping these tragedies with banners like "Amok Drivers" or "Cars Out of Control".

The big problem is all television news crews have a bias that they cannot ignore: they drive nearly everywhere to file their stories. They see the expanding bike infrastructure and pedestrian plazas as eating up road space. To them that is a growing threat which makes it harder to drive their news van and do their job.  Thus, they have a vested interest in being critical of bike lanes which affects who they decide to interview, what footage they use, the edits they make, the "facts" they accept.  I remember in August 2008 after being interviewed about the city's upcoming Summer Streets, CBS anchor Don Dahler (shown here driving distracted in a report on distracted driving) turned to me and remarked that closing streets for these kinds of events makes it hard to get around the city.

But that isn't all we have to deal with. Now we have politicians practically falling all over themselves to make it harder to bike. This one wants to register cyclists. Another one wants an environmental review of all new bicycle facilities. Then there is the high profile case of Brooklyn Boro President Marty Markowitz and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer who want the city to spend $300,000 to remove a protected bike path on Prospect Park West, a complete street in which overwhelming evidence indicates the street is safer for all users without impacting driving distance times.

Add to that stepped up NYPD enforcement, including this lovely summons for a non-existent infraction for not wearing a "helment" [sic] and you've got to wonder what the end game is with all this?  Thankfully, there has been no real retreat - so far - from Mayor Bloomberg and NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan other than a handful of comments saying they need to do a better job educating the public.

But our press could be doing a much better job educating its viewers and being aware of how their own bias is affecting their reporting.  The Netherlands video is aptly titled "When Cyclists Matter." So far here in the Big Apple, most of the media hasn't gotten that message.