Motorist blocks the crosswalk on France Avenue

Walk-Shaming in the Media

Media outlets frequently shame walking in the way they cover issues related to walking, and these tactics contribute to a culture where death and destruction are accepted as unavoidable byproducts of our auto-oriented mobility norms. I noticed this in the reporting on a bus-pedestrian collision last week in my neighborhood, which critically injured a well-liked long-time city councilwoman.

While news reports make it clear that the driver of the school bus failed to yield right of way to a pedestrian in a legal unmarked crosswalk before turning into her, the articles drop subtle hints that this was probably unavoidable for the professional driver of a giant vehicle on our public streets but probably avoidable for the seemingly law-abiding human being on two feet.

I doubt most people in the media intend to be so callous in how they frame walking issues (with the exception, perhaps, of this commentator) but we still need to be aware of the subtle ways language and rhetoric frame responsibility, accountability, normalized behavior, and mainstream mobility choices. Let’s examine some of these subtle and not-so-subtle methods of walk-shaming.

The crosswalk talk

every-corner-is-crosswalk-328x500The most common form of walk-shaming is to victim-blame, usually regarding use of a crosswalk (For a full background on this shaming, check out the comments on my earlier post including this one). It is bad enough when a crash victim wasn’t in a legal crosswalk, even though basic ethics as well as MN Statute 169.21.3(d)(1) demand motorists exercise due care to avoid running over human beings wherever they may be. And that’s, of course, ignoring the fact that so-called jaywalking originated in a propaganda campaign by the motor industry in the 1920s.

But this type of shaming is especially egregious when someone is killed or injured while crossing in a legal crosswalk. In last week’s bus-pedestrian collision, WCCO-TV was most blunt with this type of shaming, saying only, “The intersection does not have a marked crosswalk.” While factually correct, the strong implication is made that the collision occurred somewhere without a crosswalk, or somewhere with a “less-than” crosswalk. But state statute is clear that every corner is a crosswalk, and unmarked crosswalks are just as legal (and real) as marked crosswalks. Let’s not imply that crossing in an unmarked crosswalk is somehow a problem.

The persistent A-word

crash-not-accidentUsing “accident” as a default word to describe a crash continues to persist, especially in cases where a pedestrian is impacted by the collision. This serves to entrench the fatalistic concept that, in the absence of intent, carnage is merely an occurrence of chance.

Earlier this year (as the fruit of Twitter trolling on my behalf) Star Tribune amended their style book regarding usage of accident: “While we shouldn’t strain to avoid the word, use a more precise construction if it’s available.” Despite that, reporter Steve Brandt used the A-word and then, when called out over Twitter, replied “Will consider [changing the word] only if police determine that it was deliberate.”  We may not know if a collision is deliberate, but Brandt’s walk-shaming apparently was.

The profit from walk-shaming advertisements

General Motors Ad
Media outlets routinely broadcast walk-shaming advertising. Car commercials often strengthen the dangerous idea that a car is a physical extension of one’s body, showing people driving cars aggressively through deserted urban streets or playing to the idea that a bigger vehicle makes a person more powerful.

But even the Minnesota Department of Public Safety is a frequent walk-shamer, responsible for advertisements which tell Minnesotans that bicycling or taking the bus is punishment for losing one’s car if they drink and drive. I’ve heard these advertisements multiple times on rural Minnesota radio stations, and the implication is repulsive – thankfully their current crop of advertising isn’t as judgmental about the motivations of people who choose not to drive.

The assumption that everyone drives

Nobody. Seriously.

Nobody. Seriously.

The media routinely describes things in terms of impact on automobility as if everyone drives where topics are framed from a windshield perspective – from weather events to downtown parades – as if the impact on driving is of utmost importance.

I assume most people in the news business are part of the driving majority, so they’re probably not aware of their own windshield perspective. They aren’t aware of how their own understanding of mobility – how they get to work, how they go around and gather the news, and how they frame issues – is so tied up with windshield mentality. This can lead to an us-versus-them framing with widely varying levels of subtlety. For an extreme example of the us-versus-them framing by the media, read John Williams’ screed below. People in the media need to get past the idea that “we” are all drivers and everyone else is an other who’s holding us back.

The no-holds-barred aggression

Last but not least, the most insidious type of walk-shaming in the media: Downright provocation and aggression.

While Joe Soucheray is the king of editorialized aggression in our media market, he’s not the only one. Here’s a direct quote from a radio show on WCCO-AM hosted by John Williams, transcribed right from the podcast.

I’ve got a solution for when the light turns green and you want to go forward in your car, but you want to make a right hand turn. but the pedestrians also have a green so they’re walking in the sidewalk. So they’re keeping you from making your turn, which is keeping the person behind you from going anywhere. I have a solution.

Instead of “we yield to the pedestrians,” the pedestrians yield to the cars. Right of way is the car’s. The cars, on green lights, go. And the little white walking man icon for the pedestrians would be more like a red running man. And it would be like, “You can go! But they’re not going to stop.”

Why isn’t that the solution? Why do we let pedestrians – who clearly don’t care, because they’re texting – why do we give them the right? Why do we give them the power?

We’ve got all these people in all these cars, and one or two people can screw it up for everybody.

When I hear that on the radio one week, then read about a neighbor being horribly injured by a school bus the next week, I’m convinced our media shares culpability in the Minnesota Massacre and the culture that does so little to stop it.

Matt Steele

About Matt Steele

Matt's passion is fostering resiliency in local transportation and land use decisions. He's at @matthewsteele.