Inj Prev doi:10.1136/ip.2011.031609
  • Original article

‘It was a freak accident’: an analysis of the labelling of injury events in the US press

  1. Andrea C Gielen1,2
  1. 1Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA
  2. 2Department of Health, Behavior and Society, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA
  3. 3Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD, USA
  4. 4Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA
  5. 5School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy, Management and Behavior, University at Albany, SUNY Rensselaer, NY, USA
  1. Correspondence to Katherine Clegg Smith, Johns Hopkins University, 624 N. Broadway, Room 726 Hampton House, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA; kasmith{at}
  1. Contributors This paper represents original work conducted by the seven authors listed. The research has been conducted over the previous year and is not currently in publication or under consideration elsewhere. The authorship team represents a collection of injury control advocates (DG, AG, SMB and SB) and communication scholars (KCS, JM and AS) and all authors contributed to the development of research questions and coding design as well as to data analysis and the final manuscript preparation.

  • Accepted 9 May 2011
  • Published Online First 9 June 2011


Objectives Given that the news media shape our understanding of health issues, a study was undertaken to examine the use by the US media of the expression ‘freak accident’ in relation to injury events. This analysis is intended to contribute to the ongoing consideration of lay conceptualisation of injuries as ‘accidents’.

Methods LexisNexis Academic was used to search three purposively selected US news sources (Associated Press, New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer) for the expression ‘freak accident’ over 5 years (2005–9). Textual analysis included both structured and open coding. Coding included measures for who used the expression within the story, the nature of the injury event and the injured person(s) being reported upon, incorporation of prevention information within the story and finally a phenomenological consideration of the uses and meanings of the expression within the story context.

Results The search yielded a dataset of 250 human injury stories incorporating the term ‘freak accident’. Injuries sustained by professional athletes dominated coverage (61%). Fewer than 10% of stories provided a clear and explicit injury prevention message. Stories in which journalists employed the expression ‘freak accident’ were less likely to include prevention information than stories in which the expression was used by people quoted in the story.

Conclusions Journalists who frame injury events as freak accidents may be an appropriate focus for advocacy efforts. Effective prevention messages should be developed and disseminated to accompany injury reporting in order to educate and protect the public.


  • Funding This paper was supported by the cooperative agreement number SR49CE001507 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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