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Editor defends road crash story language after pressure group criticism

ramzyAn editor has defended the way his newspapers report on road crashes after criticism over how they refer to such incidents in stories.

Ramzy Alwakeel wrote an editorial on the subject after the Hackney Gazette and Islington Gazette received “some stick” over their coverage of a collision between a lorry and a bicycle which caused a cyclist to have her leg amputated.

Among those to criticise the Gazettes was pressure group Stop Killing Cyclists, which described their coverage as “dreadful”.

The group claimed on Twitter that the usage of the term “collide with” in the story implied that both parties were using similar speed and force.

In an editorial responding to the criticism, Ramzy said he was “curious as to what everyone else thinks we should have done”.

He wrote: “One criticism centred around whether we were right to refer to the incident as a “collision” or should have chosen more active language such as ‘run over’. There was also the perennial debate about whether it is correct to say a driver hit someone or a vehicle did, with people on soap boxes saying we were brushing the accountability of drivers in general under the carpet by making it sound like a cement truck could hit people without being driven by someone (of course this can happen but I accept it’s not the norm). Stop Killing Cyclists went to far as to call our attempt at neutrality ‘dreadful’.

“From my perhaps ignorant point of view, the argument is semantic: the only thing a driver can hit is the inside of a car, so it is the car itself that hits something. Nothing more insidious than that dictates our choice of language. Of course drivers are responsible for cars – but do readers really need telling that?

“What has given me pause for thought is that I do believe drivers should bear responsibility for the hugely more dangerous vehicles they operate, and this isn’t always borne out by, for instance, convictions and sentences. So if we can do anything to remind people that they might be better off not driving anything then I want to know what it is.”

Ramzy, pictured, told HTFP: “The difficulty is knowing to what extent it really is prejudicial or unfair to list one party before the other, or to say ‘collided with’ rather than ‘was in collision with’ – you’re taught to use these supposedly safer, more neutral terms but I’m not sure who they really help.

“You’re not going to jeopardise a trial or libel anyone by doing one rather than the other, and it’s likely both parties are going to be upset regardless of what you print.

“Even if a collision isn’t a driver’s fault it’s still virtually always true that more than 50 per cent of the impact is the doing of the larger vehicle because of its larger mass even if not necessarily higher speed. So on that basis I will definitely consider relaxing the knots we sometimes tie ourselves in.

“The bottom line is if people want to suggest alternative ways we can word our stories I’ll always listen to them. But there is a reason we do things a certain way, even if that’s open to challenge – and it isn’t because of an agenda besides that of not getting stuff wrong or being sued/taken to IPSO.”

11 comments

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  • August 10, 2018 at 9:46 am
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    Editors are always very cautious about crashes, because cops have yet to establish cause and possible blame.
    But in reality saying “a lorry hit a woman crossing the road” imputes no more blame on the driver than the ridiculous expression “a lorry and a pedestrian were in collision” so often seen in local papers.
    Lorry hits woman is a simple statement of fact. It would still be the same if the woman threw herself under the lorry. But try telling that to editors, who are more nervous about legal action nowadays than at any time in the history of the newspaper industry.
    That’s why so many crime reports based on cops press releases are littered with “police said” in the mistaken belief it makes the copy safer. It doesn’t. If the facts are wrong, they will still be wrong, though the source and not the paper might be responsible.
    In this case it seems unfair to criticise the paper. Drivers don’t hit vehicles or people (except road rage), their vehicles do.
    But it is true that papers are over-cautious about crashes and even use passive language like “a car and a cycle were in collision” instead of “collided” . All part of the nervous atmosphere on so many papers now. No-one wants a big libel bill.

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  • August 10, 2018 at 9:53 am
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    It was drummed into us when we were on NCTJ legal courses that “collide with” or “was in collision with” were the correct terms to avoid any accusation of prejudice. The cyclists may think the lorry was at fault but that cannot be said – or proved – until the matter has come to court and to use any other term would give the defence counsel/solicitor to argue that any hearing would be prejudicial to his/her client.

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  • August 10, 2018 at 11:08 am
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    That’s also why an RTA is now known as RTC.
    And plod now have Serious Collision Units
    Stop Killing Cyclists need to remove cranium from orifice and stop running red lights, undertaking lorries et al.
    (And before the lycra-brigade crucify me as a petrol guzzling pedal-hater I can drive multiple wheels up to 7.5 tonne, two motorised wheels up to 500cc and yes, I cycle as well)

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  • August 10, 2018 at 1:29 pm
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    The statement from Stop Killing Cyclists is born out of ignorance, as previous correspondents have already made clear. It is, of course, regrettable that the cyclist in this case was severely injured, but it isn’t the job of a news reporter to imply who was to blame until the facts have been established in a court of law. Incidentally, from my seat on the upper deck of a bus yesterday I watched a cyclist go through three sets of traffic lights which were clearly showing red signals against him. No doubt in my mind as to who was at fault in this particular situation, Instead of using emotional outbursts like this, Stop Killing Cyclists should adopt a more objective approach in their campaigning. The editor in this case was perfectly correct in his handling of the story.

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  • August 10, 2018 at 1:48 pm
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    Wordsmith, Toggy and Digger are all correct in their excellent analyses. I would add I have lost count of the times I have had to dodge out of the paths of cyclists while on the PAVEMENT, watched in total disbelief as Chris Froome lookalikes samba through moving lines of traffic while said traffic is in motion and hidden my face in my hands while same gaily risk their lives while playing Russian roulette with traffic lights.
    Of course an editor has to avoid apportioning blame before a tragic accident like this comes up before court. After a verdict is handed down is a different story, as Stop Killing Cyclists, if they could put aside their paranoia for a second and exercise their patience, should realise.

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  • August 10, 2018 at 2:44 pm
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    @paperboy – of course editors are cautious – for the very reasons I gave before. To imply it is a new thing is wrong – I was referring to the lessons I was taught more than 50 hears ago. You cannot say, for definite, that ” a lorry hit a cyclist” because you weren’t there. You have to say” There was a collision involving …” until the “facts” come out in court.

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  • August 10, 2018 at 11:07 pm
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    It’s absolutely unbelievable that the comments on this article have dissolved into cycle hating, it’s like reading the comments in on one of my local Devon Live articles. Lycra Louts, Chris Froome lookalikes, I’ve had to doge cyclist on the pavements etc. The reality is that on average 45 people a year a killed on pavements, none of which are killed by cyclists.

    What cycling campaigners are asking is that these incidents and collisions are reported correctly. The person in an HGV has a far greater responsibility for the safety of the others around their vehicle, especially seeing as they drivers visibility is so poor. The more sympathetic press use terminology along the lines of ‘the HGV hit the cyclists’.

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  • August 11, 2018 at 4:26 pm
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    Yes, I was always told that for legal reasons it’s best to say “A Ford car was involved in a collision with a Volkswagen.” Mind you, I saw a report in a local the other day say there had been an “alleged disturbance!”

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  • August 13, 2018 at 9:10 am
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    @Caspar Hughes – Journalists have a book to study called McNae’s about what can and cannot be said when it comes to accidents and we are not allowed to say ” A n HGV hit a cyclist” unless it is said in court – if it comes to a court case. Otherwise we have to say ” there was a collision involving an HGV and a cyclist”: or words to that effect. To say otherwise would land me in court and a fine. If you wish to pay that – fine; if not then let us stick to the rules.

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  • August 13, 2018 at 9:55 am
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    Bemused by the editor who thinks passive language doesn’t help, Caspar – who is talking absolute twaddle – and paper boy – who seems at the very best to be confused.
    As wordsmith rightly points out (and as anyone who passed their NCTJ law exam should know) neutral language is used for a reason, and anyone who thinks they can glibly say “the HGV hit the cyclist” should book themselves in for a refresher.

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  • August 13, 2018 at 10:23 am
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    Caspar Hughes: we have rules we have to follow. If we don’t, it can get us into serious legal trouble (I’m trying to make this as simple as possible).

    Also something to consider: This is not a cycle-hating exercise. Most cyclists, like most members of the public, behave reasonably well. However, there seems to be a growing minority who do not follow the set of rules appertaining to the highway and appear to believe they apply to everyone else and not them. If this was not the case, there would not be so much resentment against cyclists who behave like yobs, would there?

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