NSC: Media Coverage of Car Crashes May Be a Health Hazard

Media coverage of car crashes may harm rather than help public health, according to two new studies published in the National Safety Council's (NSC) Journal of Safety Research. According to the studies, media tend to obscure the bigger picture of motor-vehicles crashes as a leading cause of American injury and death – and the number-one killer of young adults – by presenting car crashes as episodic, human interest stories and giving the impression that crashes are random and unpreventable.

The studies call for increased mention in crash coverage of preventable risk factors that contributed to fatalities, such as seatbelt use, speeding, alcohol or drug use and distracted driving.

One study focused on United States newspaper coverage of crashes with injuries (Monica Rosales and Lorann Stallones, Department of Psychology, Colorado Injury Control Research Center, Colorado State University). It found that media coverage runs counter to public health interests by emphasizing the distinctiveness of each story rather than on detecting trends and identifying risk factors.

The study also noted that coverage contained virtually no information that may have predisposed a crash risk, such as weather conditions or speed. It also found little mention of alcohol or drug use, or of demographic factors, such as age and race factors, that could help communities identify population groups at high risk.

This type of coverage, the study concludes, may present inaccurate perceptions by overestimating infrequent causes of crash deaths and obscuring frequent causes. It tends to present complex issues as singular cases and can be counterproductive to public health.

The other study, conducted in Belgium, explored television new coverage of crashes (Kathleen Beullens, Keith Roe and Jan Van den Bulck, Leuven School for mass Communication Research, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium). Its findings were similar, noting that there are substantial differences between the amount of media coverage devoted to certain causes of crash deaths and their actual incidence. The study expresses concern that this may distort the public's perceptions and attitudes, and present crashes as non-preventable.

The study further concluded that television news did not highlight potential prevention measures, such as seatbelt use. It also noted that the human interest framework favored by television news added an emotional dimension that may detract audience attention from the facts, thereby missing the opportunity to inform viewers about the causes and consequences of risk-taking by motorists.

Communicating Risk Factors

Both studies call for increased communication between news media and public health professionals to improve the accuracy and injury-prevention information of crash coverage. By presenting more of the factual, contextual information involved in crashes, they hope for more accurate audience impressions of risk factors involved and greater understanding of driving risks.

“Media play a very important role in informing, educating and providing perspective to help people better understand issues,” said Janet Froetscher, NSC president and CEO. “When media focus just on the human interest side of the story, they can create the impression that crashes are accidents that are not preventable. The media has an important opportunity to help the public understand that the term 'accident' is a misnomer; that crashes are preventable, and that the injuries and deaths resulting from crashes can often be linked to specific behaviors.

“It is important that media include in their stories the behaviors that contributed to a crash or the resulting injuries, such as speeding, aggressive driving, talking on cell phones, driver inexperience, teen passengers, not wearing seat belts, driving impaired or not keeping small children properly restrained in the back seat,” Froetscher said. “When media include these relevant facts, they provide a teachable moment to help people understand the link between their behavior and crashes, injuries and deaths.”

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