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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.

  • http://www.greenidea.eu Todd Edelman

    All the goods (links) in one piece! However, I would be surprised if it is the reporters and remote crews and not their producers (and really their bosses) who are exerting such an influence on content.

    The missing piece (I have mentioned this before in Streetsblog NYC) is the continuing anti-cyclist and pedestrian behaviour of drivers -- not as you mention how the media under-reports/does not hype it like it does the supposed bike chaos - BUT how the NYPD which is notoriously soft on drivers is controlled by the same Mayor Mike who is boss to JSK. I can appreciate that the police culture is different to DOT culture but enough already.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/shmooth Peter Smith

    The television and print media portrays bikes as if they were menace to society,

    Janette Sadik-Khan and DOT, along with Paul Steely White and Transportation Alternatives, are the folks who view bikes as if they were a menace to society. We shouldn't be blaming the police for doing exactly what DOT and TA demanded they do -- crack down on cyclists, all of whom are 'jerks,' by definition.

    At some point someone's gonna have to step up and take responsibility for what's happening to cyclists in New York City, and then they're going to have to step down.

  • Henry

    To be fair, we used to see stories like this in the west. When cars were 'new' and starting taking over the roads, people were outraged. The roads have been around for thousands of years, and people used them for many many things. These new high speed, heavy vehicles would kill and injure pedestrians, children, everything in its path. To keep a long story short, the Safety council invented to keep us safe morphed into the AAA and they started backing their own interests and tricking everyone to think pedestrians and other road users are at fault, with help from the media.

    I recommend everyone to purchase and read this book. Or just read it on google books for free: bit.ly/gQqW9Z

    I'm not done reading it yet, about halfway through.

  • Clarence Eckerson, Jr.


    There is responsible ticketing - giving cyclists tickets for riding the wrong way on a street, riding on sidewalks, etc. - and then there are many of the tickets the NYPD has been handing out.

    Personally, I have no problem with legal ticket writing - I can't stand wrongway cyclists nearly hitting me - but if you look at the two links provided (and there are many other examples) the NYPD should be doing things to change cyclist behavior, not harass them.

  • http://www.greenidea.eu Todd Edelman

    I would like to find out how many wrong-way tickets are given out. This number would match precisely the number of people who are simply trying to take the shortest route possible on NYC's (in particular Manhattan's) fundamentally flawed one-way streets. "Salmoning" will never stop, never ever, if these streets are not made two-way (big Avenues) or with permission for cyclists to ride against traffic on narrower side streets (which of course are as wide as three vehicles but now mostly for storing private cars).

    Is anyone going to challenge NYCDOT about this?

  • Norm Milstein

    THE STREETS NEED TO BE CHANGED!  To paraphrase Enrique Penalosa, a line down the side of a street a bike lane doth not make!  Without extensive separated bikeways, only athletes won't be in acute jeopardy on flawed streets. And even the athletes face considerable danger.

  • http://hembrow.blogspot.com David Hembrow

    Thanks for the link. FWIW, I've been tagging blog posts about what has worked in the Netherlands to bring about the extraordinary rate of cycling that the country now enjoys.

  • Bob Davis

    Just an observation: An old saying, "He whose coins I take, his song I sing." Consider how much ad revenue TV stations and newspapers get from the motor vehicle industries, and how little they get from the bicycle industry. The news-radio station I listen to on the road seems to get a hefty chunk of its income from various luxury car dealers. Some of these are rather amusing: "Find the Mercedes of your dreams at Umlaut Motors." I'm tempted to write to them: "Never, in my wildest flights of automotive fancy, have I dreamed of a Mercedes."

  • Erik G.

    Bob Davis is spot on.

    Neither the Nethrlands nor Denmark have a domestic automobile producer anymore.  Sweden and Germany do, and it shows in their relative retardation of bicycle facility implementation (Sweden and Germany, including the former GDR, are still years ahead of the USA)

  • http://www.TheBusBench.com Randall BusTard

    If only Los Angeles had a paper that would carry out such a campaign in the wake of hit-and-run of a bicyclist (or even the lousy public transit agency). Instead, we have the developer-and-car-loving glorified press release called The L.A. Downtown News, and that dying metro rag that should have re-staged its 1910 event from 01 October.

    Yes, we did see quite bit of shock horror stories about cars menacing pedestrians, bicyclists, et al, when cars first came out—the reason being that such stories sold papers. The carnage has continued, even multiplied, but the shock has settled into acceptance. On the other hand, Critical Mass is new and carries enough shock value to warrant news. That should make clear the intentions of L.A.'s "news"papers.

  • http://www.greenidea.eu Todd Edelman