On Bicycle Coverage and Media Bias

Since I’ve been producing Streetfilms (at last count, 196 of them), rarely do I come across work in our field that I find monumentally enlightening, savvy, or high-caliber. But the latest blog post from David Hembrow’s “A View from the Cycle Path…” contains an embedded video produced by Mark Wagenbuur that left me in awe. The video examines the media and public response to a road incident in the Netherlands between a reckless driver and the three cyclists he struck while they were stopped waiting for a traffic light. Please watch it through, it should be seen by everyone.

After you finish rubbing your eyes and wondering if you really just saw that, think for a minute: It’s fair to say that, wherever you live in the United States, you’ve never seen reporting like what you see in this clip — not even if the victims had died. Not even if they were high profile actors or members of society. Not even if dramatic video existed of the crash itself.

We’ve got a tough hill to climb if we want to see quality reporting on street safety using this kind of terminology. For instance, here in New York City we are dealing with a press that salivates any time they hear any mention of the word “bike.” Pavlov would be proud. The television and print media portray cyclists as if they were a menace to society, like bedbugs in need of extermination. The constant barrage of late has been unrelenting, depressing and biased.

In particular, CBS2 in NYC has devoted so much time to negative bicycling stories — constantly getting the facts wrong — you have to wonder how much of it is sloppy reporting and how much is a vendetta.  After all, this is the same network that has chosen to use “Bike Bedlam” as their choice buzz phrase to file many of these stories under. Yet when pedestrians or cyclists are hurt or killed by reckless drivers, we don’t see them grouping these tragedies under banners like “Drivers Amok” or “Cars Out of Control.”

The big problem is that all television news crews have a bias that they cannot ignore: They drive nearly everywhere to file their stories. They see the expanding bike infrastructure and pedestrian plazas as eating up road space. To them this is a growing threat which makes it harder to drive their news vans and do their jobs. Thus, they have a vested interest in being critical of bike lanes, which affects who they decide to interview, what footage they use, the edits they make, the “facts” they accept.

I remember in August 2008, after being interviewed about the city’s upcoming Summer Streets, CBS anchor Don Dahler (shown here driving distracted in a report on distracted driving) turned to me and remarked that closing streets for these kinds of events makes it hard to get around the city.

Our press should be doing a much better job educating viewers and being aware of how their own bias is affecting their reporting. The Netherlands video is aptly titled “When Cyclists Matter.” So far here in the Big Apple, most of the media hasn’t gotten that message.

  • Glenn

    This is yet another reason traditional media continues to get scooped by innovative on the ground citizen journalists around the city. Driving a big van with a satellite link-up to do a live shot somewhere is so 1980. If I were running a local TV station, I’d hand out digital flip cams to hundreds of citizen journalists around the city and give them $100 for each 3-5 minute story they file. It would be far more interesting than the crap you see now on local news. (Except for Pat Kiernan’s hilarious “In the Papers”)

  • frank

    If this were in America the comments in the newspaper would have been screaming for the parents to be locked up for allowing their children outside on bicycles in the first place.

    I think the break down would go like this:

    70% wondering “where were the parents?”

    10% saying that the “Lance Armstrong wanna be’s” got what they deserved

    10% wondering why their hard earned tax dollars are spent on bicycling paths if “idiots” and “suicidal maniacs” continue to ride on the street

    10% bicyclists who try to talk sense into the trolls but are dismissed as “idiots” or “gay” or “liberals”

  • Nate Briggs

    Another alibi for car-worshipping media types.

    The foundation of the discussion is this: the Automobile is the central icon of American culture.

    Bicycling is an anti-cultural activity – treated with scorn – and so, naturally, the media here in the US would examine the incident described in the complete opposite way.

    The cyclists would be described as irresponsible and immature: obstructing someone trying to display his self-confidence and masculinity. The media would then conclude that the riders were lucky not to be hurt – and that they should learn their lesson, and acquire “grown-up” methods of transport. (Like a big fucking pickup truck).

    Until transportation activists recognize that they need to work at the fundamental level of culture – including a lot of cultural attitudes about male potency – they are just nibbling at the edges of these issues.

    Nate (SLC)

  • Tom Teriffic

    You got that right Frank – CBS, the NY Post and plenty of others would have been out there asking why any parent would let their kids ride a bike in NYC.

    We need to change that!

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Glenn,

    That is by far one of the best ideas I have heard in a long time. Better yet, we should starting doing that for Transit Riders to show their commute (especially bus riders) since, really, local network news almost never covers bus issues – sure they’ll jump aboard a subway – but not a crowded bus.

    Maybe T.A.’s Bus Brigade?

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I’ll add this: last year I talked to a news crew from channel 7 on the street for a story in my Red Hook nabe (I think they were asking about the rodent population, I didn’t make the cut) and after I was just hanging out and chilling with the camera guy talking about shooting video. It was a a pleasant talk.

    Then, I told him I was a bike rider and his first reax after that was, “You ride a bike? Are you one of those guys riding down Broadway taking up room I could be driving on?”

  • J.Knecht

    To a large extent, the media reflects the status quo. The intention is to appeal the general populace. Here in the US, that means people in cars who get annoyed with the cyclists who dart around them and are seen as antisocial scofflaws. As opposed to the Netherlands where the tables are turned substantially.

    So, the way to change that is to ride more, encourage others to ride more, and ride respectfully.

  • Ian Turner

    J. Knecht, that’s not really true. Mass media in New York still takes a windshield perspective, but only a minority of New Yorkers own cars and an even smaller of minority use cars for commuting. The media perspective influences the general populace, rather than following it.

  • Frank is right, americans love to blame the victim.

    A few days ago, a 3 year old girl biking on her cul-de-sac sidewalk was run over by a pickup backing into the driveway.

    Half the comments were about how irresponsible the parents were for letting a 3 year old out of the house.

    WTF?

    Not one comment was about the driver LOOKING before moving, or the automakers for designing dangerous equipment.

    The enormous size of pickups, with their corresponding blind spots is literally a fatal flaw, and nothing is done about it.

  • vlad

    Laws should be more harsh towards reckless driving. In the States, drivers get away with murder, literally. Drivers who kill peds and cyclists might get a citation, that’s it. Especially, here in NYC. So if you wanna plan a hit, just run a person over with your car, done deal. How about making drivers pay $1000 for a safety class and revoking their licenses if they fail to attend or pass a class.

    I lived in Holland for 10 years. Biked everywhere, not one incident. The law is always on a cyclist’s side, no matter how at fault a cyclist could be. NYC, different story. A large percentage of drivers are totally oblivious of their surroundings. I commute to Midtown from Forest Hills 5 days a week, I had so many near misses, was cursed at, called gay/lance wanna be, etc. And I do consider my cycling to be rather defensive.

    To sum up, we need stricter laws, better driver and cyclist education, honest media coverage and just simple respect for one another. SHARE THE ROAD.

  • Better yet, we should starting doing that for Transit Riders to show their commute (especially bus riders) since, really, local network news almost never covers bus issues – sure they’ll jump aboard a subway – but not a crowded bus.

    Like this?

  • Jason Henderson

    um, wow. That is incredible. Thanks.

    Clarence, actually I have read this level of reporting. Brad Aaron in Athens GA for the Flagpole (in the South, which is hard to do this kind of reporting). Brad Aaron also wrote for Streetsblog NYC.

    Also Clarence, the bus idea is good. what about an am-radio like morning program where you get call-ins from bus passengers discussing newspaper headlines and the bus trip. (travel times, delays, unruly passengers, or the positive vibe) Not so much digital but narrative on radio. Maybe would be a very fun thing for streetsblog to expand into especially with all the “smart” phones. dunno.

    word

    -jh

  • Bob Davis

    I commented on another discussion about how the TV stations and newspapers get large amounts of revenue from the motor vehicle industry. If you took away the truck, luxury car and beer commercials, NFL game TV broadcasts would be 30 to 40 minutes shorter. Newspapers run pages of car dealer ads. How much money do they make on bicycle ads? “He whose coins I take, his song I sing.” The all-news station I listen to when out on the road makes a good portion of its income advertising luxury car dealers. Some of the commercials are rather amusing: “Find the Mercedes of your dreams at Umlaut Motors”. Never, in all my days, have I ever dreamed of a Mercedes. Or how about BMW, “The Ultimate Driving Machine”–too many of which are bought by people with non-ultimate driving skills.

  • t

    I am a pedestrian in nyc. I prefer any transportation over auto. But, I will say I am routinely avoiding near misses with cyclists traveling the wrong way down one way streets. Even with bike lanes. Don’t get me started on sidewalks. That said, and not to blame the innocent, to enforce permanent license removal on drivers is hippcratical without required licensing of cyclists. As a pedestrian I worry more being struck by a bike than a car. There’s just no warning, or regard for designated rules at times. Again, I’m pro cyclist.

  • Joe R.

    “That said, and not to blame the innocent, to enforce permanent license removal on drivers is hippcratical without required licensing of cyclists.”

    We see how well licensing auto drivers has worked as far as making them drive safely, which is not at all. Even removing their license doesn’t prevent many from driving anyway. As for cyclists, most of those sidewalk cyclists you see are delivery guys who unfortunately have an economic incentive to operate the way they do. Change a few things ( pay them by the hour, forbid tips, make the employer pay for tickets ) and you’ve fixed most of the problem. Segregated bike lanes also greatly reduce sidewalk riding. Grade-separated bike lanes would great reduce red-light running. It’s all a matter of infrastructure and/or having incentives for different behavoir.

    And yes, if this accident had happened here in the states, the media coverage would probably start with the headline “Out of control cyclists play chicken with pick-up truck-and lose”. Of course, you would have 90% of the readers comments blaming the cyclists, saying things like “they should ride their toys in the park”, or “they had it coming”.

    In my opinion on this whole issue American journalists are doing the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater with their distorted coverage. Motorists kill more than two orders of magnitude more people in the city than bicycles, and yet day after day it’s more negative press on bicycles. There has to be a way to turn the tables on these people, hold them to task for their unfair, biased reporting.

  • Ben from Harlem

    Clarence,
    Great post and a fascinating video. Makes we want to visit Holland again.

    This morning while reading this discussion, I was listening to WNYC’s excellent weekend program “On the Media.” I think you and the folks at T.A. could make a good pitch to editor Brook Gladstone about this crazy barrage of anti-bike coverage over the last two months. They are great reporters of reporters, so to speak, and I would want you to encourage them to ask some of these questions:
    1- Why is this negative coverage happening so frequently, at only certain news outlets? (CBS2, Post, and now Daily News)
    2 – Why in the middle of the winter, when many cyclists aren’t even out there?
    3 – Why is this one issue where the point/counterpoint style is not used (how often do you here cycling or safety advocates giving there take to respond to claims of “the sky is falling!”)
    4 – What is the connection between commerical sponsorship (i.e. car ads) on T.V. and in print and the editorial approach of these media outlets?
    5 – How is the coverage of street safety here in NYC different (if at all) from other cities, as we are a non-car owning majority city, a city filled with transit riders, walkers, taxi riders and yes cyclists?

    Clarence, if you visit in person, there is a nice bike lane approach to the Varrick Street studios – Prince Street Bike Lane! Just watch out for the fabulous looking SoHo people hanging out in the lane! lol

    Fondly,

    Ben from Harlem

  • As a pedestrian I worry more being struck by a bike than a car.

    Well, then you’re putting yourself in serious danger by allowing your worries to be so obviously out of line with the true threats to your life and well-being. Take care of yourself!

    Clarence, you and the rest of the Streetfilms gang have a lot of experience shooting high-quality video and audio without using a van. What do you think about a Streetfilm specifically aimed at instructing video crews about the best equipment to use and how to transport it by bike or transit?

  • Aaron Naparstek

    Here is Marcia Kramer and Randy Mastro’s latest Prospect Park West hit-job. It’s quite effective, no? I’m particularly impressed with “investigative reporter” Kramer’s total inability to pick up the phone and call any of the thousands of people who support the PPW redesign.

    http://newyork.cbslocal.com/category/video-on-demand-news/?autoStart=true&topVideoCatNo=default&clipId=5560195&flvUri&partnerclipid

  • eveostay

    Ben,

    Why do you need Clarence or TA?

    You could send your thoughtful pitch to WNYC yourself.

  • Marsha Kramer’s Eyebrow

    Wow, with that report CBS now had basically declared they are for its removal with its extremely biased reporting this time. I mean not talking to ANY of the advocacy groups once again.

    And how many times did they show that one clip? Seven times? Eight times?

    Marcia is an extremely weak reporter. Someone has to counter this.

  • leah

    Excellent piece, Clarence. And excellent video. The American media bias is a constantly frustrating thing, but one we shouldn’t let go unnoted. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

  • Marco

    I’m no Dutch expert, but it looks like this is local news coverage from a suburban city smaller than Syracuse. Hard to make the parallel to NYC news organizations. There’s a lot more going on here in the big city.

  • Marsha Kramer’s Eyebrow

    Marco,

    Of course you can make a parallel. NYC is the ONLY major U.S. city where fewer than half of households own a car. Millions of people take transit every day. Walking is a way of life (except for tv reporters apparently) If anywhere there should be balanced reporting, it should be NYC. And there isn’t.

  • Ben from Harlem

    Streetsblog Readers,

    I submitted my story pitch directly to the Contact Us link on WNYC’s On the Media home page.

    In addition to this, remember how many fellow blog readers have suggested contacting reporters directly.

    The reporters are creating “reality” and presenting it as “facts,” even if we find their reporting work to be sloppy and one-sided. So, just as frustrated citizens need to contact politicians about misguided policy, so too should frustrated viewers/readers/listeners contact the editorial boards, producers, and ombudsmen at the offending media outlets to let them know that as consumers of their product, we are unhappy with their work.

    Perhaps Marcia Kramer and the various Post editorialists assume that they speak the majority opinion, so what they say is true. We need to remind them that an ever-growing minority of New Yorkers are cyclists, but a far larger group is New Yorkers who walk. All pedestrians in the city are in danger every day due to aggressive turning, speeding, and red light running.
    In fact, earlier today, while crossing 125th street, a man in an SUV nearly hit me (let’s say within one foot of my foot!) while making a right turn across the crosswalk (when I had the signal). I held up my hands, like “Don’t shoot!” and mouthed “Watch out!” He slowed down and flipped me off with a scowl. I was stunned. Only to arrive at the opposite sidewalk, the same man unrolled his window, gave me a menacing look and growled, “You’ve got something to say to me?” I was frightened and said nothing, but I imagine if I told him something about yielding to pedestrians he would have kicked my ass.

    So yes, Marcia Kramer…the real danger is bicycles. Sheesh.

  • Over at SFist, Brock Keeling doesn’t think it’s “logical” to infer that TV bike coverage is influenced by reporters’ mode of travel:

    “The news van theory, we suspect, is utter nonsense.”

    http://sfist.com/2011/02/11/cyclists_treated_like_bedbugs_in_ne.php

  • Wow. This is particularly meaningful to me, having lived through something so very analogous and yes, it was treated in exactly the opposite manner:

    Three bikes crushed by a driver of a large vehicle. Minor injuries, lots of terror. The media and online “haters” blamed the victims.

    Video and more here: http://bclu.org/20070511/

    True, that incident differed from this one in that a protest/demonstration was involved, and the attacking vehicle’s windshield was fractured after the terror began and after bikes were crushed.

    Background: During a Berkeley Critical Mass ride on May 11, 2007, an angry driver confronted the crowd with his “Huge American” car, coming right up to the demonstrators, and then slowly but surely accelerated into the group, pushing them bodily at point-blank range, catching one and then another cyclist against his bumper. The cyclists were pulled out thanks to others (that’s how the second cyclist was trapped). Terror came quickly as people were trapped and it appeared to some they were sucked under the bumper, and given what was happening people rightfully feared the driver was going to flee the crime, creating a bloodbath along the way. (That is why my camerawork switched from the pushing of the van, which was established, to identifying who the driver was, as his windows were tinted.) Although the driver thankfully stopped, the act did real harm, crushing three bikes and injuring two cyclists.

    The police (as is the norm) exonerated him, even with the three bikes stacked under his wheel and even though he admitted brandishing a knife-like weapon on the crowd; the media was biased as usual (one station even edited out the part which shows the van driving forward, another got an interview by lying that they would focus on that most important part when really they sought a deceitful hit piece); and some even made accusations that the cyclists were fabricating evidence, protesting that the B-roll supplied to the media had two different cameras’ video edited together, criticising the camerawork for ignoring the action to identify the driver, and focusing on whether the broken window was deliberately edited out (one of the riders broke the window and admitted it publicly and to the police; this happened after his bike was crushed and it was not done to hurt anyone; the crack was small on the scene but days later for a newspaper photo it had become immense).

    The police, with a long history of instigating violence at the rides, even claimed that the bicyclists lifted the van and put their bikes under the wheel. They waived off uninvolved witnesses, drivers, who supported the cyclists, and refused to take statements from the victims and refused to execute a citizen’s arrest for the victims.

    As the videographer/legal observer, I was personally targeted by angry driver types who were encouraged to do so by misrepresentation. My phone rang off the hook that week and even a year later I was receiving harassment calls, so deep was the denial (and opportunism). A fair hearing of what happened was out of the question. Worth noting that the only reason we went to the media was because we anticipated a one-sided story. There had already been a similar case from across the bay in San Francisco which was conflated at length, and we thought if only there had been video of what really happened (driver attacking crowd), it would have been different. This videographer did get a very positive story in the media at that time showing that drivers do attack the crowd, but it was soon suppressed and taken off the website.

    At the scene, a resident of the area said that surely the cyclists had run a red light (she assumed), and thus gotten what they deserved. She was far from alone as we found out in coming weeks. The idea that bicyclists are fair game to run over is that endemic! (Other residents were horrified and fair, to their credit. This was in a wealthy and insular part of Berkeley, a very car-dependent area where there’s a reason that “Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard” changes name to “The Alameda”.) Note that Berkeley is deeply divided by class and race, as well as politically, and that the separatist hills set opposes sharing the streets time and time again. Opponents even sued to stop a 4-block bicycle lane in the area that would have saved another resident’s life (he was gunned down in the crosswalk, speaking of being “fair game”).

    There is an updated video which has never been posted, similar to the one linked here. The newer video incorporates a discussion with the police which was never posted publicly. It was created for the complaint process against the police, but the complaint was forfeited due to a technicality when the lead complainant didn’t show up for the (repeatedly delayed) hearing. I can make it available if it’s helpful.

  • Bob Davis

    A question about replacing news vans with news bikes: Where to put the station or network logo? If a station’s van is on the scene, passersby can see that “KRUD channel 99” is on the job, and maybe they’ll tune in. Harder to display your trademark on a bike. Also, there’s a competition between stations for bigger and better “hardware”; if all the other stations show up at a big event with 1-ton vans, and “KRUD-99” has a bicycle team, the “99 newscrew” will most likely have a major inferiority complex. Reporter from another station: “Gee, I didn’t know things were that bad over at 99. You poor guys!” But, they could advertise, “Channel 99! With Green Team Coverage! Bigger news, smaller footprint!”

  • Marsha Kramer’s Eyebrow

    I love the end of Marcia Kramer’s latest video stand up while she talks about how much congestion there is on PPW there is an ambulance double parked (hey, that’s fine) a FedEx vehicle double parked behind it, and ONE car driving for about 7 or 8 blocks. Probably less congestion than on any average NYC street anywhere.

    Also here is what I would love to see, did CBS 2 get the entire clip of what happened after ambulance went by? I’ll bet once the light ahead went green the cars sped up just fine.

    Marcia just hasn’t a clue in how to report, she obviously has lost her training. Here would be some angles of her to take:

    Has she ever even asked or reported on what “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” wants to see as a better bike lane on PPW?

    Has she ever sought out some transportation experts to examine the street design to see if it works? Maybe someone like Sam Schwartz who is well respected by everyone?

  • Ben from Harlem

    And let me guess – footage granted by our NBBL friends?
    Any mention of reduction in injuries?
    Nope.
    BTW, Marcia – it wasn’t just that there was traffic. Not a single car moved over with sirens and lights blasting. That means all of those drivers were breaking the law. And endangering the other people. Even in crowded midtown traffic, when a driver sees lights and hears sirens behind them, it is their responsibility to get out of the way. This same “incident” could have occurred on any two lane street in the city, but the story would have been “oblivious motorists don’t get out of the way of an ambulance.”

    But CBS 2 would not have run this story.

    And yes, people, when you click on the video link, what do you see? An ad for the Honda Oddyssey! I’m not a big car-conspiracy guy, but there you go…

  • eveostay

    “I submitted my story pitch directly to the Contact Us link on WNYC’s On the Media home page.”

    Awesome — thanks!

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