On Bicycle Coverage and Media Bias

Since I’ve been producing Streetfilms (at last count, 196 of them), 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 the three cyclists he struck while they were stopped waiting for a traffic light. Please watch it through, it should be seen by everyone.

After you finish rubbing your eyes and wondering if you really just saw that, think for a minute: It’s fair to say that, wherever you live in the United States, you’ve never seen reporting like what you see in this clip — not even if the victims had died. Not even if they were high profile actors or members of society. Not even if dramatic video existed of the crash itself.

We’ve got a tough hill to climb if we want to see quality reporting on street safety using this kind of terminology. For instance, here in New York City we are dealing with a press that salivates any time they hear any mention of the word “bike.” Pavlov would be proud. The television and print media portray cyclists as if they were a menace to society, like bedbugs in need of extermination. The constant barrage of late has been unrelenting, depressing and biased.

In particular, CBS2 in NYC has devoted so much time to negative bicycling stories — constantly getting the facts wrong — you have to wonder how much of it is sloppy reporting and how much is 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 when pedestrians or cyclists are hurt or killed by reckless drivers, we don’t see them grouping these tragedies under banners like “Drivers Amok” or “Cars Out of Control.”

The big problem is that 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 this is a growing threat which makes it harder to drive their news vans and do their jobs. 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.

Our press should be doing a much better job educating 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.