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Forum spotlights media coverage of pedestrian fatalities

Transportation activist Lee Martin speaks at a community forum on pedestrian fatalities in January of 2015.
Transportation activist Lee Martin speaks at a community forum on pedestrian fatalities in January of 2015. Center for Collaborative Journalism

“Quit blaming the victim,” Lee Martin said with anger rising in his voice.

The local business owner and transportation activist said he thinks the media and law enforcement all too often portray walkers who are struck and killed by automobiles as having brought the accident upon themselves.

The media may describe the dark color of the pedestrian’s clothes or may point out that the walker was not crossing in a crosswalk at the time of the accident.

Martin was among those who attended a community forum on pedestrian fatalities earlier this year in the fellowship hall of Centenary United Methodist Church. The forum was organized by the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.

During Martin’s pre-written speech, his long ponytail stayed motionless as he repeatedly waved a manila folder filled with research.

“Wearing dark clothing is really irrelevant in placing blame,” Martin said, though some studies do indicate that people wearing dark colors are more likely to be hit.

Martin often e-mails journalists at The Telegraph and local news stations arguing that car-centric infrastructure, rather than pedestrian behavior, is most often to blame. Sometimes no one even writes him back, he said with frustration.

Telegraph reporter Liz Fabian, whose job includes covering pedestrian fatalities, was in the audience.

“I don’t think I’ve ever written a story that blamed a victim for wearing dark clothing,” she said.

Fabian doesn’t see pointing out what a pedestrian was wearing as an indication of blame, but rather a possible explanation for why pedestrians and drivers cross paths.

Part of her responsibility as a reporter, she said, is looking at whether the driver could have avoided the accident, to explain why police do or do not file charges.

She also said she had responded to Lee’s emails.

[Disclosure: Fabian served as an advisor on this series, though she was not involved in the writing and editing of this story.]

REPORT THE FACTS, BUT GIVE CONTEXT

Media ethicist Kelly McBride understands, firsthand, the difficulty journalists encounter when reporting on such sensitive topics as pedestrian fatalities. But, she said, reporters must provide all important details, otherwise readers will fill in the blanks with their own imaginations.

McBride, vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute and a former police reporter, recalled how a year ago on spring break, her son’s friend was struck and killed while trying to cross a busy road near a beach in Florida. The incident happened about midnight.

The news coverage that followed did not say whether the victim was inebriated or if he was crossing at a crosswalk. It did, however, say that no charges were filed, which only led McBride to assume that the police found her son’s friend at fault for his own death.

“It left me to fill in the blanks as a news consumer,” McBride said. “In an attempt to protect the family from some sort of harsh judgment, you can’t shield the public from relevant facts, when they are relevant.”

Journalists can avoid the perception that they are either unfairly blaming or shielding the victim, McBride said, by remaining factual, thorough and accurate.

“When you are using information that could be perceived by the audience as being preachy or judgmental, you have an obligation to tell the audience why this information is important to the story,” McBride said.

WEIGHING RESPONSIBILITY

Even if pedestrian behavior may contribute to accidents, Martin maintains that dwelling on that factor misses the point.

In two letters to the editor of The Telegraph, he cites where Georgia law does not prohibit pedestrians from crossing outside of a crosswalk.

That’s not quite the complete picture, said Austin Riley, traffic fatality investigator for the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office.

“There is nothing against the law for you to go outside of that crosswalk and cross the road,” Riley said. “But it does say in the law that you will cross in a safe manner.”

Riley said that more often than not, pedestrians are often crossing dangerous roads while inebriated.

“It’s not against the law to drink and walk,” Martin said at the meeting.

But in Georgia, it is. A 2010 law states that “a person who is under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug to a degree which renders him a hazard shall not walk or be upon any roadway or the shoulder of any roadway.”

Violators can be punished with a misdemeanor and fined up to $500.

On The Telegraph’s website, debates over victim culpability -- and whether it’s appropriate to even consider it -- often rage among readers.

“How many have to get run over before they stop walking in the road?” a reader commented on the 2013 macon.com story about the death of pedestrian Luther Allen Wright.

That was followed by this reply: “The person that was driving was speeding. Plus, haven’t you ever heard that PEDESTRIANS HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY! Plus where else was he supposed ta [sic] walk when there aren’t any sidewalks. SHAME ON YOU FOR EVEN SAYING SUCH A THING!!!!!!!!!!!!!” the commenter posted.

Wright died Oct. 23, 2013 at a hospital after being struck by a driver on Magnolia Drive. Toxicology reports for Wright and the driver are pending due to an ongoing investigation.

“Somehow we’ve got to find out what the cause is. And if we keep blaming the pedestrians, it’s just going to confuse the issue. It’s never going to get fixed,” Martin said. “The problem is the roads. Period.”

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