How Language Choices Blame the Victim

stop

I was in a fury last week after learning that someone killed a Minneapolis child with their car on Halloween. First, I was angry that this happened at all. Halloween is the deadliest day of the year by far for children walking. Just this Halloween alone, 4 people were killed and 7 were injured around the country because people driving cars ran into people walking. Everyone should be very careful when driving on Halloween, simply for the fact that there will be a lot of children out and about. Children who are dressed like vampires and werewolves who want to dart out of the darkness to scare you. Children who are playing tag with their friends and rushing to the next doorbell, hoping that this house will finally be handing out full-size candy bars. Children who are so hyped up on sugar that they can’t stop moving, can’t stop running, can’t stop to look both ways before crossing the street. So yes, I was angry that anyone would be driving their car at speeds that could kill a child, in light of the fact that children are unpredictable. The one thing that isn’t unpredictable, on Halloween, is the fact that many, many children will be walking around.

The second issue, and maybe the bigger one, was the language the Start Tribune used right after the crash. The article read “Car runs over and kills boy, 5, crossing Minneapolis parkway.” Oh, a car killed the boy? A car that was suspiciously unmanned because it suddenly became sentient and started driving itself ran over a human child? No. A car did not kill a child. A person did. They updated the title later, to “Young trick-or-treater hit and killed crossing Minneapolis parkway,” which still very conveniently does not call out the driver for being involved in the crash at all.

There were many other problems with this article. When it first came out, there were very few facts available. The article mentioned that the driver was not suspected to have been distracted or intoxicated. Sure, that’s a fact we’d all probably like to know. However, the article also stated that it was unknown whether the child was “wearing illumination” or whether he crossed at a designated crossing. If you’re familiar with this particular incident, you’ll know that it was a unique and tragic case. The child was in a car on the parkway, opened the door before the car had stopped, and ran out across the street before the oncoming car had time to stop. I’m not vilifying the driver for hitting the child in this particular case. I’m calling out the way it was talked about before anyone even knew the details.

The point is that the media frames fatal crashes involving a person walking or biking as if it was the victim’s fault. As if the victim didn’t take enough precautions to not get hit. Sure, the exact situation varies with each of these incidents. However, the conversations we have about whose responsibility it is to stay safe are absurdly skewed. Every news story that comes out after a person biking is killed in a car crash comments on whether the biker was wearing a helmet, even though helmets won’t do much to protect you against a two-ton vehicle traveling at 45mph. In the case of this child, the Star Tribune felt it necessary to mention illumination and where the child crossed. By even mentioning these things, they told us that those are the important things to consider in fatal pedestrian crashes. Well, people might say, if the kid didn’t have hi-viz elements in their costume, it’s their fault for not being visible enough. If the child didn’t cross at a designated crossing, then really there’s nothing that could’ve been done to prevent this crash. This language primes people to think about what the victim could have done to prevent dying. This language made space to blame the victim and absolve the driver even before any of the details of this crash were known.

It’s just an accident

The same thing happens when we use the word accident to refer to a car crash. Saying accident absolves blame from anyone involved in the crash. It absolves blame from everyone in our society who drives. Our attitudes around these deaths are like a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Oops, accidents happen! If you don’t want to get run over it’s your responsibility to be vigilant and visible!

If accidents happen, and are unavoidable, traffic deaths are just tragic things that cannot be helped. But that’s absurd. An accident is when lightning strikes a tree near you, causing the tree to fall on you and kill you. That’s an accident. That’s something you can’t predict or prevent. In the US, 30,000 people each year are killed in car crashes. They’re sadly predictable and commonplace. The way we design our roads and our vehicles and our lives contributes to this death toll. It’s anything but accidental.

People who are walking or biking get killed all the time by people driving. But because police officers and jurors are often drivers themselves, they identify with the person who was driving. This has led to very few consequences for killing someone, as long as you kill them while you’re in a car. This perpetuates the idea that car crashes are just accidents, occurrences that are unavoidable, that could happen to anyone. Obviously if it wasn’t accidental, there would be consequences.

It’s too inconvenient to make things safer

ped speedsThe truth is that nobody wants to do the things that will greatly improve pedestrian safety. Our roads encourage people to drive at fatal speeds in urban areas where people are often walking and biking. Driving at 40mph feels normal to many people, because they’re used to it. They’re used to driving that fast when passing a person biking. They’re used to weaving around a person in a crosswalk at that speed. They don’t know how fatal it is. The road tells them that driving that fast is safe and acceptable. How else would they know better?

safe kids seen

From Safe Kids Oregon

The only option for greatly reducing fatalities among people walking and biking is to redesign our roads to be safer and slower. But that comes at a cost that many, or most, are unwilling to make. It would make commutes longer, they say. It would increase congestion. So instead, governments come up with pedestrian safety campaigns, like this one in Oregon. Safe kids are seen! Well, if you’re not a safe kid, then we’ll wash our hands if you if something happens to you. These pedestrian safety campaigns communicate to everyone that it is the person walking’s responsibility to stay safe. It’s a wilderness out there. The cars are going fast, and there’s nothing we can do to slow them down. So you better keep yourself safe.

Perhaps George Orwell said it best when he wrote:

“But the only palliative measure that would make a real difference is a drastic reduction in speed. Cut down the speed limit to twelve miles an hour in all built-up areas, and you would cut out the vast majority of accidents. But this, everyone will assure you, is ‘impossible’. Why is it impossible? Well, it would be unbearably irksome. It would mean that every road journey took twice or three times as long as it takes at present. Besides, you could never get people to observe such a speed limit. […]

In other words we value speed more highly than we value human life. Then why not say so, instead of every few years having one of these hypocritical campaigns… in the full knowledge that while our roads remain as they are, and present speeds are kept up, the slaughter must continue?”

Summary

I’m calling out the Star Tribune, and any other media outlet. They need to be more responsible with the words they use. By talking about whether the victim did everything in their power to prevent being killed, they are communicating that traffic deaths are unavoidable, accidental, and blameless. They are saying that it’s a victim’s responsibility to stay safe, and therefore it’s the victim’s fault if they are hurt or killed. Media outlets have a lot of power when it comes to priming the way people see issues. They need to decide whether they’re going to use this power for good.

This post was cross posted at bikinginmpls.com.


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23 Responses to How Language Choices Blame the Victim

  1. Serafina November 11, 2015 at 8:46 am #

    Thank you for articulating this well.

    My 7-year-old and I were reading the paper together. He saw a Star Tribune article on this, and grabbed my arm and said, “Mama, a little kid was killed by the Google car on Halloween.”

    The article said, “A car headed west was unable to stop in time.”

  2. MFrank November 11, 2015 at 9:00 am #

    Fantastic article Lindsey – very well stated. The mainstream media bias toward our car dominant landscape and their ‘us-versus-them’ mentality in regards to motorists and pedestrians/cyclists desperately needs to change.

  3. Keith Morris November 11, 2015 at 9:01 am #

    I called out the Strib on their facebook post for this article. True, it was the police that mentioned that the child had not been wearing reflective clothing or carrying some sort of “illumination”, so they bear some of the blame, but the paper doesn’t have to print it either.

    I think this incident points out something that should be obvious; wherever you have MUP, park, or school where lots of children are, all neighboring streets should be required to receive traffic calming to the extent that the 80 something percentile of motor vehicles are driving at slower speeds no more than 20 MPH. So many motorists use the river parkways as though they were scenic highways and so many parks and schools are surrounded by streets with deadly speeds. Logan Park, for example borders Monroe and Broadway, the latter which recently saw the death of a motorcyclist.

  4. Eric W. November 11, 2015 at 9:15 am #

    While I agree with the overall sentiment of the article, I don’t accept the argument against the word ‘accident’. An accident isn’t something that is unavoidable; it is something that is unintentional. If someone told you “I accidentally broke my coffee mug,” I don’t think you would respond with “It wasn’t an accident. You weren’t holding it carefully.”

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 11, 2015 at 9:22 am #

      Yeah, I don’t have strong feelings on this either.

    • Scott Shaffer
      Scott Shaffer November 11, 2015 at 10:19 am #

      I think this post is compatible with talking about accidents in everyday life. There are some activities that don’t require a high level of care. Drinking coffee and doing dishes are in this category. Reasonable people can have an accident and break a mug.

      But there are some activities that require a high level of care. I’m thinking about operating heavy machinery or performing surgery. We expect pilots and surgeons to do everything within reason to prevent errors. I just looked through some news stories about plane crashes and surgical complications, and I couldn’t find any that said the pilot’s or surgeon’s errors were “accidents.” That’s because we (reasonably) expect people to be really careful when there are lives at stake. We should extend this general principal to driving a car.

    • Jeremy November 11, 2015 at 10:19 am #

      Technically true, and clearly there are many car crashes that happened by accident. But what I think Lindsey is saying, and which I agree with, is that this constant use of the word “accident”, in addition to exculpating the driver of the vehicle, serves to minimize the magnitude of the event.

      In general, all “accidents” should be called “crashes”. Furthermore, agency is important, and saying that a driver ran over a kid is much better than saying a car hit a kid.

      Cars have the run of the city, and their effect is hugely negative (in addition, I must admit to be economically positive). These little wins are still drops in the bucket – car drivers have near hegemonic rule over Minneapolis. We can afford to call out the Strib for its thoughtlessness and slipshod reporting.

      • Wayne November 12, 2015 at 9:33 am #

        Eh, I don’t know if you can really say they’re economically positive. Break-even, maybe, but considering the level of hidden subsidies for road infrastructure and the toll in human life (and serious injury) they take, I’m doubtful that cars and auto infrastructure is really that great of an investment. Not to mention all the land the highways took off the books for property taxes and the low taxes paid on parking lots. If you’re just talking about an economic boon from the private side of things, ok sure. But it’s basically a wealth transfer from public to private sector, not something that adds value along the way. If roads were a good investment with returns that could be realized, wall street would have found a way to fund them long ago. As it stands, municipal bonds are probably the closest thing you can get and are just kind of ‘meh’ to investors.

    • Kadence November 11, 2015 at 11:24 am #

      There were quite a few articles in the media this past summer about the usage of “crash” and/or “collision” versus “accident.” There’s certainly a nuance between these terms, especially when it pertains to presumed guilt, innocence, and responsibility for one’s actions. “Accident” describes a situation that was “unintentional,” implying that no one was a fault because whatever incident occurred was not intended to happen.

      Accidents are chalked up to, “Well, that person didn’t *intend* to hit someone with their car,” which some may cite as a reason to excuse the fact that that person still hit another person with their car and assert the former person’s innocence. It excuses the “if you break it, you bought it” logic which holds you responsible, for example, when you accidentally break fine china in an antiques store. “Accidents” don’t necessarily hold people (see list of people in following paragraph) responsible for the outcomes of their actions, and that’s one nuance we’re talking about here.

      The other nuance we’re talking about here is that many, many accidents are avoidable: the person driving the car, the engineer who designed the street, the municipality that maintains the road, or any number of other persons involved with the maintaining of safety – whether through upkeep or use – may be at fault for not doing their part to help prevent “accidents.” “Crashes” and “collisions” may still be accidental in that these incidents weren’t intentional, but the implication is that someone is still responsible for a crash or collision, whether through bad street design or distracted driving or a combination of these and other factors.

      In this case, the person driving the car stated that they weren’t able to stop in time. If the person driving the car was truly going the posted speed limit, and they were paying attention, and they truly were not able to stop their car in time, then that signals to me Bad Design. And you fix Bad Design with Good Design. Solutions? Lower the speed limit from 25 mph to 15 mph, or install more crosswalks, or implement other crash prevention design measures.

      For further reading (two different perspectives):

      Emily Badger – Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/08/24/when-a-car-crash-isnt-an-accident-and-why-the-difference-matters/

      Kevin Drum – Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2015/08/crash-vs-accident-doesnt-seem-it-matters-very-much

    • Sam November 12, 2015 at 11:22 am #

      Yeah I agree as well. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around this argument either, even though I wholeheartedly agree that media sources and everyone in general need to be more careful to choose language that doesn’t blame victims in all cases. I just fundamentally disagree that the word “accident” implies that no one was at fault. I don’t think many people actually use “accident” to specifically mean “unavoidable.”

      If I accidentally forgot my scarf at home, that was my fault. I should have grabbed my scarf and I didn’t. I could have prevented it. It’s my fault. It was an accident that I caused. Intentionality doesn’t have anything to do with fault.

      • Joe November 16, 2015 at 9:56 am #

        I don’t ever “Accidentally” forget my scarf, forgetting in and of itself says it was something I meant to do and failed to do. You forgot your scarf. Why are people adding accident or accidentally to situations where there is no need? And I think I’m loquacious.

        A child has an accident when they are still learning how to predict their bladders. People often say things like “I didn’t mean to XXX it was an accident” but my mom always looked at me and my brothers with the pursed lips which all to clearly said “B.S.” And if she figured out the whole chain of events and someone did something stupid, there was a timeout coming. Why can’t this be the same with cars, bikes, peds, etc? Why isn’t the press looking at this with the pursed lips of “why don’t I take a closer look at the last 5 minutes” ? Does the use of crash, or collision have something wrong with it?

  5. Andrew B November 11, 2015 at 10:07 am #

    Nice article. The news throwing in mentions of “wasn’t wearing a helmet”, “had an illuminated vest”, and “car does something” have always struck me as the sign of “we don’t have enough details about what happened, but we’re going to write up the story anyway and stuff it with fillers” lazy journalism. In the course of that lazy journalism it promotes victim blaming and the person driving as an innocent.

  6. Nicole November 11, 2015 at 10:58 am #

    Thanks for writing this article. I agree, the Star Tribune and other media outlets need to improve their word choice, and we all do too.

    Our society is so entrenched in driving and this goes back to a previous post on Streets.mn by Anne White, who asked how we can change the car-culture. http://streets.mn/2015/10/16/americas-love-affair-with-the-automobile-not-much-change-in-100-years/

    Stopping blaming pedestrians for their deaths is certainly something that goes along with that, along with making roads safer, and promoting Vision Zero in Minneapolis and Minnesota.

  7. Ben November 11, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

    “The second issue, and maybe the bigger one, was the language the Start Tribune used right after the crash.”

    If I’m reading this correctly, are you saying that the bigger issue is not that the crash happened, but that the Star Tribune wrote an initially bad article about it?

    • Kadence November 11, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

      Reading comprehension aside, there are usually multiple ways to interpret the author’s meaning but I think you’re missing the forest for the trees – the Bigger Issue* here is that the StarTrib coverage was so irresponsible and lazy as to shut down critical thinking and conversation about how to make streets and roads safer for all users before actually examining the details of how the death of this little boy happened. The coverage implies that while the death of this little boy was preventable, it was up to a five-year-old boy to prevent his own death rather than questioning the status quo that streets are generally designed for the safety of people driving cars and not other users. Shutting down this critical thinking and conversation about how we can prevent further injuries and deaths of pedestrians (and other non-motorized traffic users) through better street and road design does a disservice to this deceased little boy, his family, future victims, and the families of future victims.

      The StarTrib coverage had already absolved the person driving the car that struck and killed the little boy of their responsibility, as evidenced through biased word choice and tone, before any additional details emerged about the crash. It is likely, therefore, that StarTrib readers chalked this preventable death up as an unfortunate accident that isn’t really any one person’s fault and that there’s nothing we can do about it.

      There *are* things we can do to prevent the deaths of pedestrians and non-motorized street users. There *are* things that we could have done to prevent the death of this little boy. Do we focus on making five-year-olds responsible for wearing reflective gear at night, or do we think critically about designing safer streets? The latter is a much more effective strategy. If a person driving a vehicle at 25 mph (the posted speed limit on the parkway) cannot stop in time for people crossing, then perhaps we need to rethink that speed limit.

      *The media shapes public perception about what happened and how it happened through word choice and tone. Journalists are supposed to present facts in an unbiased manner so that readers may come to their own conclusions, but word choice and tone shape how readers interpret an event and can lead a reader to a conclusion that is more in line with the journalist’s interpretation, which may be biased or unbiased.

    • Lindsey Wallace
      Lindsey Wallace November 11, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

      Nah, it was more like, there were two things that caused my anger: I was angry first because it happened, and second, perhaps more, because of how it was written about. I wasn’t saying that large scale how this was written about is more important than the fact that it happened, I’m saying that when it comes to my own feelings when I learned about this death, the writing pissed me off, a lot.

      • Ben November 11, 2015 at 10:03 pm #

        Cool, makes sense, thanks for the further explanation.

  8. Alex November 11, 2015 at 3:18 pm #

    What is the George Orwell quote from?

  9. Rosa November 12, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    another way to phrase the speed thing – anyone who argues against a 20 mph speed limit is saying they’d rather take the chance of killing someone than be a few minutes slower going where they’re going. And if they make that choice and that argument ahead of time, if they do kill someone, is it an accident? The underlying situation was a choice.

  10. GlowBoy November 12, 2015 at 4:00 pm #

    “saying they’d rather take the chance of killing someone than be a few minutes slower going where they’re going”

    Really, in many cases it’s just a few seconds, rather than a few minutes. Most people’s mental calculations are that if they’re on a 30mph road, they average 30mph. But in an urban environment, actual speeds are often 10-15mph. You’re typically spending far more time at red lights, in line at 4-way stops, waiting for cross traffic to clear, pausing for pedestrian crossings (just kidding on the last one! I’m figuring out how things work here in MN), etc., and actually very little time cruising along at the speed limit.

    Try driving the length of Lake Street at a moderately busy time: it’s red light after red light. Even when you are moving, you’re spending far more of your time accelerating away from a stop, or braking to the next stop, than you are *actually* going 30mph. Reducing the maximum speed to 20mph would have a negligible effect on a lot of trip times, but it sure would make things safer.

  11. Kurt Franke November 15, 2015 at 10:54 pm #

    There is a classic “blame the victim” take in the twin cities.com article on the bicycle/car crash today. (And it occurs on Cleveland Ave as well.)

    “The man was not wearing a helmet when he was struck by a vehicle at 11:45 a.m. near the intersection of West Jefferson Avenue and Cleveland Avenue South, according to the St. Paul Police Department.”

    http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_29117849/cyclist-gravely-injured-after-mac-groveland-collision

    My thoughts and prayers to the bike rider for a full and speedy recovery.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman November 16, 2015 at 7:26 am #

      Normally in articles on car vs car crashes, if someone is injured or killed it’s noted whether or not they’re wearing a seat belt. Other than that the value of bicycle helmets isn’t as settled, how is this any different?