Objective: To examine the public health messages conveyed by newspaper coverage of fatal motor vehicle crashes and determine the extent to which press coverage accurately reflects real risks and crash trends.
Methods: Crash details were extracted from two years of newspaper coverage of fatal crashes in four Midwestern cities in the United States. Details and causal factors identified by reporters were compared to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) using odds ratios and two tailed z tests.
Results: Papers covered 278 fatal crashes over the two year period, in contrast to 846 fatal crashes documented in FARS. Papers assigned blame in 90% of crashes covered, under-reported restraint use and driver’s risk of death, failed to reflect the protective value of restraints, and misrepresented the roles played by alcohol and teen drivers.
Conclusion: Newspaper coverage did not accurately reflect real risk. Papers presented fatal crashes as dramas with a victim/villain storyline; in keeping with this narrative strategy, papers were most likely to cover stories where a driver survived to take the blame. By highlighting crashes that diverge from the norm, focusing on the assignment of blame to a single party, and failing to convey the message that preventive practices like seatbelt use increase odds for survival, newspapers removed crashes from a public health context and positioned them as individual issues. Public health practitioners can work with media outlets in their areas to draw attention to misrepresentations and change the way these stories are framed.
- motor vehicle
- CI, confidence interval
- FARS, Fatality Analysis Reporting System
- OR, odds ratio
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