Media Reporting of Road Traffic Injury

The editor’s choice paper for the June 2010 issue is “Reporting on Road Traffic Injury: Content Analysis of Injuries and Prevention Opportunities in Ghanaian Newspapers.” The brief report, prepared by Isaac Kofi Yankson and colleagues, is a simple bibliographic analysis of newspaper coverage of road traffic injuries in Ghana. As the authors point out, similar assessments have been undertaken in looking at the US press, but this is the first to use this method to study the subject in a low or middle-income country.

The results, however, are distressingly familiar: most reports omitted mention of recognized risk factors or possible safety interventions. Only editorials or submitted commentaries routinely discussed possible interventions.

It isn’t surprising, of course. The journalistic impulse is to focus on the particular, the human and individual facts of a tragedy – this is what makes a story compelling. Is it fair, really, to expect a reporter to place the crash into a broader pattern? To, in essence, strip the individuality from the event?

I am not sure. Tom Vanderbilt wrote a nice piece on this topic in the Columbia Journalism Review last year (hat tip to Deborah Girasek, Director of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, as well as a diligent reviewer and friend of the journal). He points out the real reluctance of journalists to promote safety messages in the face of a personal or public tragedy. That Princess Diana was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of her fatal crash was not widely noted until more than 10 years after her death, when the road safety minister in the UK finally broke silence to point out that safety restraints might have saved Diana’s life.

It does seem to me that law enforcement and first responders – who have a much more clearly vested interest in injury control –  could be prepped with “talking points” or simple facts to share with the media in an attempt to put crashes into context. And if public health is to engage with the media to develop “reporting standards for road traffic crashes,” I suggest we work to focus on the relentless predictability of this epidemic. Not the individual tragedy, but the horrifying, senseless and demeaning anonymity of falling victim to a plague most of us manage to deny and ignore. If any other condition were killing so many otherwise healthy individuals day in and day out, the public would be outraged and demanding a response. Can we move road traffic safety to that level of public engagement?

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