How To Read News Stories about Cycling

Outside the sports page, reading about cycling in your local newspaper or news website can be a drag. If stories are not about fatalities and injury, then they feature wars between fundamentalisms: vehicular cycling purism butting heads with intolerant motorist backlash. It is all enough to make most sensible people leave their bike hanging in the garage to avoid all the bad news and bad karma and take a long walk (that is until a moral panic emerges about pedestrians!). Rarely do stories convey the joy, utility, and fraternity of traveling by bike.

In order to navigate cycling-oriented news while keeping one’s sanity in tact, a few things must be understood about journalism:

Newsworthiness: Lots of things happen every day, but a handful of consistent ideas from the professionalism of journalism shape what’s defined as news. For example, one of the strongest elements of newsworthiness is conflict. If things are going well, it is generally not newsworthy. But if there’s a fight – or if the journalist can frame the story as a “fight” – then it’s a story worth writing! No wonder so many news accounts pit cyclists against drivers. Such a conflict generates page views, which is the economic life-blood (or last gasp) of online journalism. In this recent story in U-T San Diego (formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune), Steve Schmidt lumps cycling into an array of areas of civic “incivility,” by focusing on the most egregious behavior in the most historically contentious corner of cycling advocacy: critical mass. Critical mass has always been newsworthy – that’s central to its public sphere logic – but it often stands as defining cyclists when in fact is a phenomenon (global and leaderless) that is highly controversial among riders. Nevertheless, it serves the journalistic goals of a conflict-oriented story.

Researchers have also found that stories framed as novel or deviant are quick to be defined as newsworthy. If the journalist is a cyclist, then they might hold a deep well of experience to contextualize a story. But if not, then writers might define cycling as either a strange and new phenomenon that must be “introduced” to an audience, or it’s a bunch of outliers doing something that goes against the common sense built into driving, and thus, a little nuts. In these ways, cyclists become some kind of special interest group, rather than the collective “we” that’s invoked by journalists in their construction of a civic community. Its rarely acknowledged that most cyclists are also motorists – or that someone on a bike is doing something that is normal and actually fun, healthy, and sustainable.

False Equivalence: Objectivity stands as the professional golden calf in journalism. Fairness and accuracy are higher ethical callings, but objectivity shapes both the way journalists pursue stories, and thus socialize readers, listeners, and viewers in how to understand and evaluate news. Even in an age where opinion journalism blurs the line between commentary and news, objectivity rules the day. Many critics regard objectivity as the disease in news, rather than a cure. It leads to detached reporting, and reliance on official sources, which reproduces an official view of the world. One of the most troubling outcomes of objectivity is false equivalence. This is where news stories represent a conflict as having two sides (rather than a conflation of positions, which would be more accurate), and the two sides are equal. If one candidate makes a mistake citing a figure, and the other tells a whopper of a lie, they are “both mis-representing the truth,” even if one is of much greater consequence than the other. This makes the journalist appear in the middle of two ideas (ie. “objective”). To call out the whopper as a true lie risks making the journalist appear as biased – even if the bias is to the truth!

Back to cycling – this kind of false equivalence occurs all the time – cyclists run stop signs and drivers are on their cell phones, as seen here in a recent The Coast News article. Both are wrong, right? Sure – but the illegality of the motorist is of much greater consequence. The illegality of the motorist is actually much more newsworthy! Drivers texting, blowing stop signs, and exceeding the speed limit while throwing around thousands of pounds of steel and glass, drivers endanger the lives of other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. The scofflaw cyclist mostly endangers himself or herself. But because of false equivalence, the consequences of cyclist and motorist infractions become equalized. Of course, this makes no sense. But when combined with novelty and deviance, as described above, it’s the malfeasant cyclist whose lawbreaking is so strange and different from the kind of lawbreaking among motorists that we all have become used to, and in a strange way – accept.

As a media studies scholar, almost every news story I read illustrates a different idea from the canon of journalism criticism and scholarship – but those outlined above seem to be the most common and perhaps the most useful in navigating the news about riding. The Glasgow Media Group published a study in 1976 titled Bad News, only to be followed up in 1980 with another titled More Bad News. For cyclists, it seems things can only get worse as more people ride and force the issue of safer streets, public spending, infrastructure, and more courageous political will. But with a bit of media literacy, we can understand and contest both the journalism that marginalizes cycling as well as the broad consensus constructed around the internal combustion engine and its presumed conveniences. When journalists do get it right, such as Matthew Hall’s recent column on the ghost bike memorializing Charles Gilbreth, who was killed riding home on Montezuma Road, its worth writing in and thanking the journalist for telling a fair and accurate story.