Fractional Reporting and Innuendo

Huffy Women's Bike

When you’re a cyclist, it’s difficult not to notice reports of cycling deaths. Even when such reports come from obscure newspapers, the story warrants attention.

A story of this sort caught my eye the other day. It was about a woman who died on New Year’s Eve after falling off of her bicycle. The first sentence, which will have a familiar ring for cyclists, is as follows:

“Alcohol and no safety helmet may have been contributing causes in the delayed fatality of a woman who fell from her bicycle onto a concrete culvert on New Year’s Eve, stated an accident report.”

As soon as I read the part about alcohol, I saw this story as unrepresentative of cyclists as a whole. Very few cyclists ride their bikes while intoxicated. And those who do are more likely to be riding a bicycle out of necessity than choice.

Still, in mentioning the lack of helmet use, this reporter portrayed the victim as part of a group of cyclists, rather than as a specific individual who happened to be riding a bike. In fact, the title shows the author’s line of reasoning: “Woman dies after bicycle accident Alcohol may have been a contributing factor; Bicyclist was not wearing helmet.”

He began by referring to her as a woman who had a bike accident, and then went on to define her as a “bicyclist who was not wearing a helmet.” It’s amazing how quickly her bad behavior with respect to drinking and riding was transferred from her as a woman to her as a bicyclist.

This strangely written article goes on to name the victim and then refers to the accident report to describe what happened: she “apparently died from ‘… complications stemming from her injuries.’” Wouldn’t it be nice to know what came before the word “complications?” The author suggests that she apparently died from these complications, yet he admits that the cause of death can’t be determined until “a report is issued by the District 19 Medical Examiner’s Office.” Perhaps he drew this conclusion as a direct result of her lack of helmet use.

The fourth sentence confirms what I believed as soon as I read the article’s title. She was riding a Huffy bicycle — not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with this. However, it paints a portrait of someone who is not an avid cyclist, since Huffy bikes are generally purchased for utilitarian purposes.

A different image from the one the author was presenting was forming in my mind. Even so, I read on.

Halfway through the article, we learn what we should have been told at the outset. “Apparently the woman, who had allegedly been drinking alcohol most of the day, traveled off the road onto the northbound shoulder of the street. She then fell into a drainage ditch and struck the left side of her head on a concrete culvert, added the report.”

What a surprise; she had been drinking alcohol most of the day before she mounted her Huffy to travel to her destination. She was too inebriated to ride properly and her judgment was impaired. Why, then, does he refer to her as a “bicyclist?” She is someone who drank too much and fell off of her bike.

The story gets more bizarre by the minute. Even though she allegedly died from complications of her injuries, she was able to crawl out of the ditch and was able to talk to the deputy at the scene of the accident. She couldn’t tell him what had happened, so he noted the strong smell of alcohol on her breath, her bloodshot eyes and slurred speech. There is also mention of a pool of blood found in the ditch where she had been lying.

An inspection showed her bike to be in good mechanical condition. And, no evidence of being hit by another vehicle was present. Even a weather report was mentioned, “the skies were clear and winds were out of the east at 9 mph” to ensure that nothing other than the woman herself could be blamed.

In the absence of a copy of the deputy’s accident report, we have only the author’s interpretation of it. He appears to have picked out the pieces which fit his vision of what must have happened.

No doubt, the woman was to blame for the accident since she had been using alcohol prior to getting onto her bike. Still painting her as a bicyclist in the title and first sentence implies that her irresponsible behavior has something to do with her being a cyclist. And, referring to her lack of a helmet as something of note is odd given that she was able to talk at the scene. If she was able to do this, she couldn’t have had a serious head injury — although we can’t rule out a blow to the head as a contributory factor in her death.

It’s not until the last sentence of the article that the author admits what I thought all along: “Ms. Hill’s Florida driver’s license had been revoked, Deputy Rogers stated.” Her driver’s license had been revoked. How did I know? Well, it must have had something to do with her inebriation and the Huffy bike.

Most people will not read an article of this type all the way to the last line. Skimming a news story is more common. This will leave the majority of readers thinking of this woman as yet another irresponsible cyclist, drinking before riding her bike, with no concern for safety, as evidenced by her condition and the absence of a helmet.

One other thing worth noting is the description of the helmet as a “safety” helmet. A qualifier of this sort is redundant, but it is designed to paint the person in question as someone who doesn’t care about safety. This is how many people who are biased against cyclists portray them.

Bias of this magnitude is always obvious to cyclists. But, it is less apparent to non-cyclists. The latter are more easily manipulated into thinking of an alcoholic as a typical cyclist. They’re unlikely to pick up on subtleties or even notice that the story was about someone who was riding a bike due to having her license revoked.

To effect change, more cyclists should become reporters. This may be the only way to modify how the media portrays cyclists and to end the one-sided reporting against cyclists. Either that, or cyclists will have to  recruit allies from within the media to put an end to the relentless cyclist bashing.

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One Response to Fractional Reporting and Innuendo

  1. Dotbiker says:

    Actually I visit and ride in a few communities where regular bike riders are suspected of ‘having their license suspended’ so there is already a bias against regular riders that is out there. This is especially true if you don’t dress in hi-tech cycling togs and ride a ‘utilitarian’ bike. So your reporter friend is expressing a bias that is already imbedded in our culture.

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