Media Coverage of Car Crashes May be a Health Hazard, Colorado State University Study Concludes

Media coverage of car crashes may harm rather than help public health, according to a new study by a Colorado State University researcher. Lorann Stallones, director of the Colorado Injury Control Research Center based at Colorado State, said accident coverage often is presented as episodic, human interest stories that tend to obscure the bigger picture of motor-vehicle crashes as a leading cause of injury and death among Americans.

Stallones’ study, which appears in the National Safety Council’s Journal of Safety Research, concludes that this type of media coverage gives the impression that car crashes are random and unpreventable. "This type of coverage presents inaccurate perceptions by overestimating infrequent causes of crash-deaths and obscuring frequent causes," Stallones said. "It tends to present complex issues as singular cases and can be counterproductive to public health."

Stallones is calling for increased mentions by the media in crash coverage of possible preventable risk factors that contribute to fatalities, such as seat belt use, excessive speed, alcohol or drug use and distracted driving.   

The study, "Coverage of Motor Vehicle Crashes with Injuries in U.S. Newspapers, 1999-2002," included a total of 473 newspaper reports involving major newspapers in six different geographical regions around the U.S. Stollones said a majority of the stories portrayed the crashes as episodic, or presenting the issue in terms of specific instances as isolated events, rather than framing the story thematically, which would provide a broader societal context.

"We determined that media coverage runs counter to public health interests by emphasizing the distinctiveness of each story rather than on detecting trends and identifying risk factors," said Stallones. The study noted that coverage contained virtually no information that may have predisposed a crash risk, such as weather conditions or speed. It also found little mention of alcohol, drug use or demographic factors such as age that could help communities identify population groups at high risk.  

Only six of the 473 reports studied included information about weather conditions or speed limits. Only 11 reports included information about road conditions at the time of the accident, while fewer than 20 percent of the reports had any mention of estimated speed of vehicles. Drunk driving was reported in 11.2 percent of the crashes, no drunk driving was reported in 5.9 percent, and suspected drunk driving was report in 2.5 percent of the crashes; there was no mention of drunk driving in 80.3 percent of the reports. Drug involvement was even less likely to be included in the newspaper reports with 94.3 percent having no mention.

Other factors included in the study were the age, sex and ethnicity of those involved; if the individuals were drivers, passengers or non-motorists; and the use of safety restraints. "There was a serious underreporting of seat-belt use," said Stallones. "This is of concern because adhering to this safety behavior has the potential of preventing fatalities in motor-vehicle crashes."

Age and sex were reported for slightly more than half of individuals represented in the newspaper reports. Stallones said providing the age of those involved in fatal crashes can be important for regions in which motor-vehicle crashes are prevalent for specific age groups. "We found, for example, that Texas had the highest number of crashes among individuals under the age of 15 compared to other states."

The study calls for increased communication between news media and public health professional to improve the accuracy and injury-prevention information of crash coverage. Stallones said public health professionals should work with editorial boards of local newspapers to inform editors and reporters about the importance of focusing on thematic reporting when addressing motor-vehicle crash information. "By presenting more factual, contextual information involved in crashes, we hope for more accurate audience impression of the risk factors involved and a greater understanding of driving risks."

The research was partially funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Centers for Disease Control and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.