A post by Stabiliser about how language is used when reporting vulnerable road user deaths reminded me of a complaint I made to the BBC last year about the same. Unlike most of my complaints to the BBC (‘schizophrenic’ is not a synonym for ‘ambivalent’), I did actually receive a (rather unedifying) response. The correspondence is below.
6th December 2010
I am writing to complain about your use of language in this article: Two cyclists killed in coach collision in Cumbria
I am extremely unhappy with the way you have used the passive tone both in the headline and throughout the article. I note the BBC Style Guide has a whole chapter dedicated to explaining why generally using the active voice is preferable. Indeed it says, “officials of all kinds love the passive because individual actions are buried beneath a cloak of collective responsibility. They say ‘mistakes were made’ instead of ‘we made mistakes'”. This is precisely what happens in this article – the event comes across as tragic but unavoidable. Surely, “Coach collides with cyclists”, is much stronger?
I understand that perhaps the passive tone was used deliberately out of fear of libelling the coach driver. However this occurred on an ‘A’ road while travelling in the same direction. The coach driver was arrested for causing death by dangerous driving. It is pretty clear that the coach collided with the cyclists and not the other way around.
I feel constantly frustrated by the BBC’s lack of sympathy in its coverage of cycling accidents. This example may seem like pedantry but it is typical of the attitude that no one is really responsible when a driver’s carelessness causes two young people to die.
I would be grateful if you could confirm that you have received this.
12th December 2010
Dear [my name],
Thank you for your email. As you point out, the driver of the coach has been arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving. This means we had to be especially careful with the language we used reporting this story, to avoid any risk of contempt of court.
Please be assured we always think hard about the way crash stories involving cyclists and pedestrians are written.
BBC News website
12th December 2010
Dear [their name],
Thanks for your response – I do appreciate it. Sadly, your assurance does not bring me much confidence given the frequency of passivity in articles about cyclists, even when all the fact are known. A quick Google search brings up some particularly bad examples:
9th March 2010 – Jake Chapman, a 14 year old who was killed when knocked off his bike, “collided with a car” according to the caption under his image. And in another story about the same incident, “he collided with a Honda Civic travelling in the same direction.”
31st March 2010 – A day when Amber Magginley, 29, was killed after “colliding with an articulated lorry.” They were “travelling in the same direction”. Hmmm…
This is not to say that all BBC News coverage of cyclists who are killed is in this vein – the language used about, for example, Anthony Maynard’s death was appropriate (“who was killed”, “struck by a van” etc.). But there seems to be no consistency.
If you can say, “cyclist collides with car” when you do not know who is at fault, why can you not say “coach collides with cyclists,” in the article I initially emailed about?
Sadly, I never received a further response.