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When covering car-cyclist collisions

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

When a person driving a vehicle hits a cyclist or a pedestrian, the common newswriting construct is to craft the sentence in the passive voice, so that the victim of the crash is the subject of the sentence. Journalists will write, "A cyclist was hit..." or a "A pedestrian was injured..." This grammatical choice puts the reader's attention on the person who was hurt or killed. Journalists often finish the sentence by writing that the person was "hit by a car" or, less frequently, "hit by a driver."

Today we address a letter from a reader who viewed the use of the phrase "hit by a car" in an NPR headline as a failure to acknowledge the driver of the vehicle and their role in the crash. The story was about a car-bike collision that killed a teenage star in the world of competitive cycling.

Turns out the writer and the editor behind the story had their own discussion about the language. Read on to find out why they chose to use that phrase in the headline, as well as our analysis of their decision.

We also highlight a story from a mountain in Pakistan where an NPR correspondent traveled to watch locals revive an ancient tradition and try to make a new glacier.

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Hit by a car — or a driver?

Neil Stein wrote on Aug. 2: This article has the headline "Top American cyclist Magnus White, 17, dies after being hit by a car." By a car. Did the car's brakes fail and roll into him? No, he was hit by a driver of a car. The first sentence of the article says as much. So why does the headline erase the human element? This ... language minimizes the reality of the rising fatality rates in the U.S. for people who bike and simply walk. Any reckoning with this sad state of affairs has to confront the reality that we are killing each other with our vehicles in entirely preventable circumstances, not that the vehicles are mindlessly causing unavoidable mishaps.

NPR's digital story about Magnus White's death starts off with this sentence: "A rising star in American cycling, 17-year-old Magnus White, has died after a driver hit him while he was cycling on the shoulder of a highway in his hometown of Boulder, Colo."

But the headline, as the letter writer noted, says White died "after being hit by a car."

Other outlets, such as The New York Times, ran the news about White under a headline that specified a driver hit him: "Teen Competitive Cyclist Dies After Being Hit by Driver." Some headlines about White's death didn't use the terms "hit by a car" or "hit by a driver" at all, like this one from The Guardian : "Rising US cycling star Magnus White killed during training ride at 17." The details about how White was killed were provided within the story.

We talked with News Desk correspondent Laurel Wamsley, who reported the NPR piece.

She said she understands the criticism of using "hit by a car" in the headline. As an avid cyclist, she closely follows news about people being killed or injured by drivers while biking, as well as the conversations about how the news media reports on these issues.

The original headline Wamsley submitted to her editors for this story was "Top American cyclist Magnus White, 17, dies after being hit by a driver." But that initial headline was changed in the editing process. She and her editor discussed that "hit by a driver" might imply the driver got out of the car to assault the victim. In their conversation, Wamsley made her editor aware of ongoing language debates and sent a 2019 Bloomberg story about research showing that "news stories overwhelmingly (but often subtly) shift blame onto pedestrians and cyclists" when they are hit or killed in a car crash, rather than the driver.

Wamsley and her editor ultimately decided "hit by a car" was most appropriate for the headline because they thought "hit by a driver" wasn't clear enough. They chose instead to be more specific in the teaser text, a summary that appears under a headline on NPR's website before readers click the link to read it, but the text doesn't appear on social media or search engines.

The teaser reads: "White was preparing to compete in next week's Cyclocross World Championships in Scotland when a driver struck him while he was cycling on the shoulder of a highway in Boulder, Colo."

"We had a fair amount of work to do in this headline because we were trying to convey some of the details of the incident and also convey ... who was killed," Wamsley said. "It was a young American cyclist on the national team, but also one that most Americans probably have not heard of previously. So we need to convey a lot of information, including some circumstances of the incident, and we relied on the teaser to unpack more of those details."

Advocates for cycling and safer streets argue that journalists should use the word "driver" to describe the person who collides with a cyclist, rather than "car" or "vehicle," Wamsley said. The Associated Press does not have formal guidelines about the phrases "hit by a car" or "hit by a driver." We asked AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke her thoughts on the language.

Froke said in an email that she appreciated the audience member's perspective as a "cyclist who has been hit by a car (which was driven by a person) and who has many friends and acquaintances who also have been hit while riding their bikes."

"But as an editor, I believe the phrasing 'hit by a car' does convey the meaning, especially in the limited space possible in a headline," she said. "Readers know that most cars are driven by people. That's implicit. (If a driverless car were involved, we would specify that.) And in fact, he was hit by the motor vehicle itself. Not by a person. A rewording to say the cyclist was hit by a driver would actually be more muddied, I think."

Wamsley concurred: "I do think that colloquially people talk about cars hitting something rather than the driver hitting something [because] a driver can be inside or outside of a car. It certainly is accurate to say that the cyclist was 'struck by a car' — it's not inaccurate. But it doesn't tell the whole story. It's always hard to tell the whole story in a headline."

After the headline, the story should report any available details about the nature of the crash, Froke said. "Did authorities say the driver lost control? Or veered into the bike lane? Or any other description of the circumstances? That's not always possible in the early goings. But certainly, any details about the actions of the driver are essential when they are known," she wrote.

The NPR story provides such details, including that "the driver crossed from the right-hand lane onto the shoulder, striking White from behind before she crashed into a fence, according to an incident report from the Colorado State Patrol." Wamsley also inserted a link to a 2022 All Things Considered story titled "More cyclists are being killed by cars. Advocates say U.S. streets are the problem," which appears alongside the text of the story as related content that readers can click.

Packing all the information of a complex story into the small number of characters available in a headline presents challenges, as Wamsley and Froke pointed out. We agree that "hit by a car" is understandable in a headline and is acceptable as long as the story provides as many details as possible about the nature of the crash so as not to assign undue blame to victims. Wamsley's story accomplished this. — Emily Barske Wood

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

An ancient practice to cope with melting glaciers

For Weekend Edition Sunday, international correspondent Diaa Hadid brought listeners to Pakistan for a storyabout the ways in which residents in the Himalayas are coping with rapidly melting glaciers. A digital version of the story from NPR's Goats and Soda offers more detail, along with striking photos. We hear from residents who are reviving an ancient practice called glacier mating, which involves mixing glaciers of different colors in hopes of replacing the melting glaciers on which they have relied. Hadid's story presents a fascinating angle on climate change, and the ingenuity of the people trying to protect themselves and their loved ones on a warming planet. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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