A CSU study released last month claims media coverage of car crashes neglects the causes of the accident and instead stresses isolated factors involved in the crash.
The study, headed by Director of the Colorado Injury Control Research Center Lorann Stallones, found that the media tends to portray car accidents as random, unpreventable occurrences, while driving responsibly could reduce crashes.
“The risks of death from motor vehicle crashes can be greatly reduced by use of seatbelts, car safety seats for children, and traveling the appropriate speeds on roads,” Stallones said. “If none of the information on these issues is reported in news reports of crash deaths, the public will assume that each since event is an isolated event that is not likely to happen to them.”
The study, which appears in the National Safety Council’s Journal of Safety Research, examines over 400 car crash-related newspaper articles from 1999 to 2002.
Stallones said she believes health care professionals need to work more with reporters to focus on the factors that cause car crashes more than just the event of a car crash, so that readers are familiar with the risk factor.
“There is a significant amount of information that would inform the public about the important prevention strategies that would reduce the risk of death and serious injuries missing from the reports,” Stallones said in a recent interview.
But some journalism professionals, like assistant journalism professor Pamela Jackson, think that the problem may be harder to resolve than suggested by the study.
“It’s difficult to re-raise the issues of car crash safety every time you cover a news story,” Jackson said. “You’re not going to be doing that unless there’s a timeliness or news value for doing so, such as the role alcohol or text messaging plays in teen car crashes.
“Journalists also tend to focus on the personal angle to stories related to accidents, with the belief that in order to get readers or viewers interested, the story has to have a human angle,” said Journalism Department Chair Greg Luft in an e-mail. “As a result, many of the details with more common elements from one similar accident to the next may be left out.”
Jackson thinks that better communication between the news media and public health care professionals may not solve the problem.
“It’s a great study and news organizations need to look at why they’re covering things the way they do but I think it can’t be as easily resolved as this study calls for. I don’t think that’s going to resolve the problem of episodic coverage because it’s an economic issue.”
Luft said he believed reporters are often rushed to meet deadlines with stories and could be forced to leave out the type of details suggested by Stallones.
“One answer to this problem might be for larger stories that bring together some statistical analysis of factors related to crashes, and then to present the results in an interesting way that doesn’t sound like a ‘lesson’ for readers, which will likely turn off the readers or viewers,” Luft said.
Staff writer Shelley Woll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.