The Media Today

The WHO trains journalists to cover car crashes better. Should the US government?

January 31, 2023

A few weeks ago, journalists from India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Malaysia gathered in Kuala Lumpur for an event put on by the World Health Organization. They were there to receive training to better cover a global public-health crisis that often flies under the radar of the world’s media: road deaths.

Among other pointers, the journalists were advised not to rely solely on police reports, which often seek to apportion individual blame for a given crash, and to interrogate the role of other factors, from the safety of the vehicle involved to the design of the road on which the crash took place. With major crashes in the past, “our story will only be about that accident; we rarely talked about any policies, or subjects such as faulty roads,” Gunjan Sharma, a reporter at India’s biggest news agency, who attended the training, told me. “When I met other journalists there from different countries, I realized the issue is the same everywhere: that a subject like road safety is kind of neglected.”

Related: When covering car crashes, be careful not to blame the victim

This WHO training was the first to come to my attention but not the first overall: they’ve been taking place for a decade or so, in conjunction with journalism trainers and, sometimes, outside groups including the International Center for Journalists and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. They run alongside a global action plan on road safety, led by the WHO and the United Nations, that rests on what is known as the “Safe System” approach—the idea, broadly speaking, that humans will always make mistakes, and that roads and vehicles should be designed with this in mind. The global action plan explicitly names training journalists as one way of “strengthening advocacy and policy support” toward the creation of safer roads. Matts-Åke Belin, who oversees the implementation of the global plan, told me recently that the world’s media have an “extremely important” role to play in helping shift societies from a “traditional” paradigm, one that places the individual responsibility of road users at its core, in the direction of a new one.

The WHO’s trainings have focused on journalists from low- and middle-income countries—in Asia, but also in Africa and Latin America—because they collectively account for more than 90 percent of road deaths globally, despite only having 60 percent of the world’s vehicles, according to WHO data. But road safety is a crisis in the US, too, especially compared with other rich countries: US road deaths have climbed in recent years, including during the pandemic, even as road use declined. Pedestrians and cyclists have been particularly hard hit. In late November, the New York Times reported that fewer foreign-service officers in the US State Department died overseas last year than were killed by vehicles while walking or biking in DC.

And, as Meg Dalton reported for CJR in 2018, American journalism on road deaths—the preserve of local TV stations and under-resourced community papers as much as major national outlets—has often fallen into the sorts of traps that the WHO has identified elsewhere in the world, from an overreliance on police reports to an excessive focus on individual incidents over, say, trends in infrastructure and vehicle design, not least that of big cars and trucks. (One historical reason for this, Dalton reported: aggressive lobbying on the part of the auto industry.) Angie Schmitt, the author of Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, thinks that US media coverage of road safety has generally improved since she spoke with Dalton five years ago, but that much of it is still bad. Not just the press, but the broader culture, “rationalizes” deaths by concluding that the victim of a crash “did something wrong,” Schmitt says. “It’s really much more complex than that.”

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“Since the introduction of the car in our societies,” Belin told me, a recurring “mantra” has been that around 90 percent of crashes are caused by human error. Sure enough, a similar statistic has often been bandied around in the US, not just in the media but also among officials. A year ago this week, the federal Department of Transportation radically shifted its approach to road safety, at least rhetorically, inaugurating its own new national strategy premised on the same “Safe System” thinking embraced by the WHO. The strategy outlined five principal objectives, from promoting safer speeds through better road design to improving post-crash care, and how they complement two other Biden administration priorities: to fight climate change and ensure racial equity, given that Black and Indigenous Americans die on roads at disproportionate rates. The new strategy, we learned, would be supported by funds from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that had recently passed through Congress. “It’s as if we were living through a war,” Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s transportation secretary, said of road death rates in the US. “We cannot accept that these fatalities are somehow an inevitable part of life in America.”

What the strategy did not mention, unlike the WHO’s global action plan, was any role for the press in changing American attitudes about what causes crashes. (I asked the Department of Transportation for clarifications on this, but did not hear back.) The new strategy is not the first or final word on road safety thinking in the US, not least because state and local governments have their own powers in this area. Still, the absence of a WHO-like media component to the strategy strikes me as indicative of a broader attitude toward the relationship between the press and power in America: that it should be one of church and state. Officials, it seems to me, rarely seem to see journalists as partners in making better policy. And many journalists have traditionally balked at anything that might smack of complicity with the state.

When I put this theory to David Zipper, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and influential writer on road safety, he wasn’t quite sold; journalism isn’t inherently baked into the “Safe System” approach that formed the basis for the new federal strategy, he told me, even if one could argue that it should be. Government-led, WHO-style trainings for journalists would be “controversial” in US road safety circles, Zipper said, in no small part because of a divide between an “old guard” that still focuses on the individual responsibility of road users and an “increasingly loud reformist voice” that advocates the “Safe System” approach and would likely embrace the idea of such trainings. This divide, I noted to Zipper, sounds remarkably similar to one that would likely form around such an idea within the US journalism community. “If the government were to sponsor journalism education programs along these lines, I almost think you could count the minutes until somebody calls it ‘Orwellian,’” Zipper said.

The federal government, of course, is not the only actor that could train journalists in this area: any number of US-based nonprofits, including those that have worked with the WHO to train overseas journalists, could do so, while other groups already offer some road safety resources for reporters. But nor, it seems to me, should the very idea of government-sponsored training be taboo—particularly where its aim is to help journalists dig deeper, not to tell them what to report. Indian road safety officials sometimes do the latter, Sharma told me, but the WHO training she attended was “completely different”; its aim, instead, was to endow a small number of journalists with policy expertise that they could then pass on to colleagues in their home countries. Journalists can’t make policy, but they play a crucial role in changing public perception and attitudes, convening debates that can end in policy changes. At the very least, journalists can raise awareness. “We just hit a sixteen-year high in road deaths,” Zipper told me, of the US. “And Americans don’t really notice it. They don’t really know about it.”

Before becoming involved with the WHO’s global action plan, Belin was an official in Sweden, the country that, in the nineties, was ground zero for “Vision Zero,” the notion that road deaths are not an unfortunate price that we pay for greater mobility but a social ill that must—and realistically can—be eradicated. The idea has since gained international traction, including in the US, and is closely associated with the “Safe System” approach. When “Vision Zero” took off, the Swedish media “went from blaming the victim to starting to discuss who can prevent this from happening,” Belin said, with reporters pressuring resistant officials, for example, on the implementation of safety barriers on high-speed rural highways known colloquially as “death roads.” The barriers have since proved highly effective, Belin says. Road reform doesn’t happen without “a very open discussion in the society,” he added. “My experience in the implementation of Vision Zero is that the whole public discussion is good from a safety point of view.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.