A tweet calling out a reporter for making a crash in which two people died seem like nothing more than an inconvenience for commuters would have gone mostly unnoticed, if Quentin “Q” Williams had been a private citizen instead of a well-liked politician. I have made several such critiques before, and occasionally read those of others, but watched as they gained little traction. In this case, it did not help that this reporter, instead of showing humility by deleting her tweet or offering a sincere apology, doubled down, defending her shoddy message: “TRAFFIC ALERT: a headache for morning commuters on rt 9 in Cromwell….”
At this stage, I’m bristling more at her response than her initial tweet – after all, this lousy treatment of a serious issue is endemic in the field.
The problem is the antiquated genre of the “traffic report.” We could ask why this still exists when you can save time by using apps like Waze or Google Maps. Why listen through a radio or television report, having to sift out details irrelevant to your commute, or scroll through feeds to see what may or may not have happened, and might not be completely up-to-date by the time you’re reading it?
What the traffic report does is spiritually deaden us to the frequent violence done by cars to human bodies on our roadways. The clichéd notion of “the headache for commuters” overshadows the real problems of the day: injury, loss of human life, the way that a victim’s loved ones are now in mourning, how that family is about to begin funeral arrangements, the trauma that many will experience and (hopefully) receive years of therapy to help manage, and the list goes on. The way reporters typically merge two stories – one that deserves sensitivity and the other that should be handled in an app like the weather – results in the minimizing of a life-changing event, something that is appalling to witness for those of us who have not yet experienced psychic numbing.
We need to take our time to name the losses, or when no names are known, at least pause to mark the occasion of damage to society, which is what happens each time a preventable crash harms or kills someone. The destructive acts take something away from us. Instead, we’re barely recognizing, nevermind grieving, these tragedies.
When people’s suffering and deaths are treated routinely as mere inconveniences, what does this do to how we behave when we’re behind the wheel? What does it do when it comes to comprehending that these are not “accidents,” but something far worse: casualties that could have, but were not, prevented because our whole way of thinking about street violence is backward?
If we are not yet willing to surrender the “traffic report,” then we should treat every broadcast, article, and social media post as if the victims’ loved ones will be reading it. I am not the first person to suggest showing compassion around reporting. For more than a few years now, The Associated Press has been steering journalists away from using “accident” instead of “crash” or “collision.” The Society of Professional Journalists, in its code of ethics, states that reporters should “remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy” and that they should “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.”
The Media Guidelines for Reporting Road Collisions,” geared toward UK journalists but equally relevant here, urges reporters to “Be mindful if reporting on traffic delays not to overshadow the greater harm, of loss of life or serious injury, which could trivialise road death. Remember emergency response staff may close a road following a collision while trying to save a life.”
We need less media fragility; reporters should be less concerned about their bruised egos, and more willing to listen to how their work impacts the population. A deadline is a human construction, not an excuse. We can’t have it both ways: feeling demoralized that people gravitate toward bogus sources for news on social media while simultaneously making excuses for low-quality, callous items from members of the mainstream media. We can choose to act with empathy, doing our best work, and showing humility by making corrections as needed and offering sincere apologies when we have done wrong. If we are suffering compassion fatigue, then we need to take a timeout until our perspective allows us to perform our job duties appropriately.