Responsible and ethical reporting about the subject of pedestrian and cyclist deaths should follow these best practices as explained in these Columbia Journalism Review (Meg Dalton) and Citylab (Richard Florida) pieces.
Crash or collision, not accident.The word "accident" implies a sense of inevitability or that the event was unavoidable. However, there are things that can be done to reduce the number and severity of traffic collisions.
Driver, not car.Do not attribute agency to inanimate objects like cars, unless it was a driverless car. Consider this sentence about a theoretical death by stabbing: "The knife stabbed and killed him."
Do not ignore the role of road design in a given crash. Provide context about the road and built environment where the pedestrian was killed.Many times, the road design and built environment at the location are contributing factors in a crash. Some basic knowledge of urban/transportation planning is needed to be able to consider and write about this aspect. In brief*, factors to consider: speed limit, road size/width (number of lanes), presence or lack of crosswalks and their positioning if present, nearby establishments/land use (a school? a busy shopping center? a Metro station? apartments/housing? etc), presence or lack of traffic calming measures, lack or presence and nature of bike lanes, etc. *(this is where the basic knowledge of urban/transportation planning concepts comes in)
Frame pedestrian/cyclist deaths as a public health matter rather than as matters of individual responsibility in isolated incidents.How many crashes have occurred in the area/jurisdiction? Are there certain locations/intersections where they occur more often?
"Reporters should ask questions like, Why did the victim cross the street where they did?, What can be done to prevent a similar situation in the future?, or Why are so many cyclists getting struck at that intersection?" (CJR)
Scrutinize drivers' actions in the crashes, not (only) the pedestrians' or cyclists' actions.Consider how language can implicitly assign blame to a given person. Was the driver speeding/distracted/drunk/etc? What kind of vehicle was involved? (larger vehicles are deadlier to pedestrians and cyclists in crashes) Crash reports compiled by police often reflect survivor bias -- if the pedestrian is killed, they will not be around to offer their perspective, so a report may be primarily based on the driver's statements. Avoid implicitly blaming pedestrians or cyclists for their deaths with commonly-used phrases (in this context) like: The pedestrian darted into traffic. The pedestrian was wearing dark clothing. The pedestrian was not in a crosswalk (the pedestrian may have been in a crosswalk when they were hit, but then thrown from the crosswalk by the force of the crash). The cyclist was not riding in a bike lane (if a bike lane was present, it may have been blocked or unsafe to ride in). The cyclist was not wearing a helmet (despite prevailing attitudes, helmets are not a panacea and cyclists can die from other types [i.e., non-head] of injuries sustained in a traffic crash).
"Better reporting practices are an indirect but important way to get to Vision Zero." (Citylab)
"Car crashes can be prevented, and the language in the news media should reflect that." (CJR)
As an example, I have revised the Bethesda Beat article to bring it in line with the aforementioned best practices. The original text (as it appeared when I published this blog post) is as follows:
"A pedestrian was struck and killed on Rockville Pike Thursday night, Montgomery County police said.
Police wrote on Twitter that they received a call around 6:33 p.m. Thursday that a pedestrian had been struck at the intersection of Rockville Pike and 1st Street.
Police did not release any additional details as of 7:15 p.m. Thursday, but said a portion of southbound Rockville Pike was closed in the immediate area.
A pedestrian was also killed on Rockville Pike Wednesday night about two miles south from the site of Thursday night’s crash.
Three pedestrians have been struck and killed by motorists in Montgomery County this year, starting on Jan. 6."
General commentary on the article:The article uses the word crash rather than accident to refer to what happened. This is a step in the right direction. The last two paragraphs begin to partially address larger contextual issues at play (by mentioning other pedestrian fatalities in the area), though they omit mentioning the factors of road design, the driver's actions and vehicle design, among other things. I realize that news articles are ideally rather succinct, but consider the aforementioned points for the sake of argument.
>>>> Here is the revised version. Bolded portions indicate revisions. Italicized portions are commentary about the reasoning behind the revision. <<<<
A driver struck and killed a pedestrian on Rockville Pike Thursday night, Montgomery County Police said. [avoiding use of passive voice and noting the driver's role in the crash]
Police wrote on Twitter that they received a call around 6:33 p.m. Thursday that a driver struck a pedestrian at the intersection of Rockville Pike and First Street. [avoiding use of passive voice and noting the driver's role in the crash]
Police did not release any additional details as of 7:15 p.m. Thursday, but said a portion of southbound Rockville Pike was closed in the immediate area. A pedestrian was also killed on Rockville Pike Wednesday night about two miles south from the site of Thursday night’s crash.
Rockville Pike (MD-355) is a heavily-traveled state highway with a 40 m.p.h. speed limit at First Street. At this intersection where the crash occurred, there are eight lanes of traffic, a crossing distance of about 115 feet (or nearly 40 yards) for a pedestrian crossing Rockville Pike.
Many pedestrian fatalities in the county have occurred on state-controlled roads in the county which tend to combine higher speed limits with roads that are busy with mutiple transportation modes: car, bus/transit, walking, bicycling. High(er) speeds are more likely to be fatal for pedestrians in crashes. Larger vehicles like SUVS and trucks are also deadlier for pedestrians. [providing context about factors like the road design and built environment in the area]
[It is not currently known in this scenario, but ideally, provide information/context about the driver's actions/responsibility: the type of vehicle they drove, were they speeding/distracted/etc]Three pedestrians have been struck and killed by motorists in Montgomery County this year, starting on Jan. 6."
Final thoughtsfor journalists and others, consider walking or biking around an area you usually drive through. Try crossing the street at a location where a fatal pedestrian crash occurred. Walk and/or bike around a bit in the area of your newsroom or home to experience what the conditions are like firsthand.