Local Media’s Great Divide on Philly Traffic Deaths

Protesters form a human bike lane after the death of Emily Fredricks. Emma Lee/WHYY

By James Kennedy

Car crashes killed 96 people in Philadelphia during 2017, according to an analysis of police data and media coverage by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

That number includes drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, including the high-profile case of Emily Fredricks, who was struck while riding her bicycle on November 28th, 2017.

But they also include many people who suffered lower-profile deaths, an even larger grouping of people who were reported as anonymous deaths and some who were not reported on at all.

By year’s end, 62 traffic deaths had been covered in some fashion by the media, far fewer than police reports indicate occurred. The disparity between these reports and the actual number of people killed is cause for concern, said Randy Lobasso of BCGP.

Since the 1960s, traffic deaths in the United States have been filed into a central database kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in order to better study the problem of traffic deaths and mandate appropriate safety improvements.

Before the advent of the NHTSA, the information had to be pieced together by researchers reading obituaries, calling hospitals and police departments, and visiting morgues. This made these researchers oddballs among their contemporaries, who believed that the “Jesus factor” — luck — had more to do with survival of a car crash than scientifically predictable factors.

Those NHTSA data only become available two years after the fact and do not include names, so Lobasso says BCGP has been forced into a situation similar to those of the early researchers, having to keep its own data on who dies in Philadelphia.

It’s not the job of the NHSTA to provide personal details of those killed in car crashes or provide frequent update — they’re a big data agency and they perform that part of their job well — but advocates for new policies on the ground need more detailed information more quickly.

The lack of data is staggering. With media reports covering only 62 of these deaths, that means that 35% of deaths in 2017 got no coverage at all.

Many Anonymous Deaths

No coverage means no coverage at all. Some of those whose deaths were covered remain anonymous despite the stories.

Among the 62 who did find themselves in a media report, over 15% were listed without a name. When combined with the 34 that received no media coverage, nameless or unreported deaths account for almost half of the total deaths.

This is part of what BCGP is struggling against, said Lobasso. With many of the deaths anonymous, it’s harder to humanize victims and rally political action.

Some victims received disproportionate attention.

Emily Fredricks was killed November 28th riding her bicycle at 11th and Spruce when a garbage truck “right-hooked” her on her way to work. Her family’s loss sparked resident responses and hundreds lined streets to create a human protected bike lane.

The death and the community attention given to it created quite a media blitz. There’s no doubt this media attention was appropriate and welcome as the response to the loss of a human life.

But others this year saw quieter coverage, and that raises questions as to why some deaths resonate and others do not.

Shien Ching Shen, 78, who was killed when a truck dragged her 120 feet as she attempted to cross Roosevelt Boulevard on foot, was one of those whose deaths received more attention in 2017, though she received considerably less coverage than Fredricks.

One of the media hooks that perhaps caused Shien to get attention was her grandson’s fundraising efforts for her funeral, which caught the attention of The Inquirer. Shien received 275 words.

The Inquirer appears to have been the only outlet that focused on Shien by name. CBS 3 did refer to Shien namelessly before her body was identified, calling the death an “accident”. Her death took 30 seconds to report and the station never revisited her life when her name became available. CBS 3 did two in-depth follow-ups on its original story on Fredricks.

Until more detailed data become available, it’s hard to say what the pattern is that determines coverage, but a study of another type of death suggests possibilities.

The journal Granta’s 2016 exploration of police shootings shows that even less is known about those deaths than about traffic violence. But between two lists of deaths kept by the FBI and Department of Justice, researchers were able to make an argument about where the overlap between the two lists might be.

“When a middle-class person is killed by police, or when a person is killed by police in front of bystanders taking videos on phones, the media tend to report about this event very thoroughly,” researcher Patrick Grant claimed in the journal.

“In circumstances like these, the police are very likely to report this case to the FBI because they know the FBI will hear about it. These cases are like the balls that tend to attract each other” in physics.

With traffic deaths, there’s no concern that police are failing to report the deaths, but the class or race of the victim might affect the availability of resources or connections necessary to be noticed by journalists.

Absent the NHTSA, it would be possible for advocates to think only 62 people died in Philadelphia due to traffic violence.

Race or class could certainly play a role in a reporting, says LoBasso, but perhaps even more determinant are other kinds of journalistic “hooks” that catch audience interest.

While pedestrians make up the largest part of Philadelphia’s known traffic deaths, they do not excite the same culture war debating that bicycle deaths do.

The “accident” frame is a big culprit. Shien’s death along the Boulevard wasn’t unusual: though it takes up only a small portion of Philadelphia’s total road length, in 2017 Roosevelt Boulevard nonetheless accounted for a disproportionate share of traffic casualties.

Though only three of the deaths in 2017 were cyclists, Lobasso says many of the policy changes that would improve safety for cyclists would also help motorists and pedestrians. Cyclists, pedestrians and drivers were all more likely to be killed in places with higher speed traffic.

Another ingredient adding to the shock of Fredricks’ death was that it happened in a part of the city where people on bicycles feel relatively safe. But Lobasso says Center City shouldn’t be the only place that people feel able to bike or walk around.

Some deaths may also have garnered more media interest than average due to a driver fleeing the scene. Several outlets wrote about Lorenzo Velazquez’s death in detail, showing that the “accident” frame can be challenged most effectively when hit-and-run or DUI factors are involved.

Lots of Attention Doesn’t Mean Perfect Media Coverage

Even for Fredricks, whose death brought a great deal more interest than those of Shien or Velazquez, media bias crept into the picture.

The 24-year-old died when a garbage truck turned right into the bike lane, a common crash called a “right hook.” BCGP has been lobbying the city to protect that lane since 2009, but Councilmen Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson have blocked that effort, according to Lobasso.

NBC 10, covering Fredricks’ death, called the crash an accident. The report did not raise questions about traffic engineering, but focused on helmet usage, a factor transportation officials know to be irrelevant, especially when viewed at a policy level.

Even in its more probing piece following the activist-repainting of the Spruce Street bike lane, The Inquirer made a point of identifying some of its person-on-the-street interviewees as cyclists who “were wearing helmets”.

One factor that may speak to why coverage changes more than any other is activism. Fredricks’ death inspired pushback from residents, and NBC 10’s coverage evolved. The network started referring to Fredricks’ death as a “crash”, ceased references to her helmet use, and focused on demands for protected bike lanes.

In order to change policies to create safer streets for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike, the public needs to be able to connect in the same way with the many anonymous crash victims. BCGP’s new data are a step in that direction.

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