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Pedestrians vs people walking – there’s a difference

Did you catch this news story from WKMG earlier this month? “Orlando man was struck and killed by a Ford Mustang as he crossed the street Tuesday night”.

You may not have noticed it, but the words used have a direct impact on how we decipher the information. When reporting on fatal collisions, language is often biased towards people walking, such as the example above. Simply stated, certain words create bias regardless of the intended content of a message.

Let’s break that down further. Most of us drive, and, as drivers, we can relate to not seeing a person crossing the street until the last minute. We have a tendency to get upset or think the pedestrian is insane for walking. But, realistically, relating to a driver as opposed to a person walking doesn’t make much sense. We were on foot long before we had vehicles, so why do we have such a hard time identifying with people walking? Experts believe that the language used in news reports and articles plays a big role. Take the words “accident” and “incident” for example. Both words can have the same intended meaning, but our brains decipher them in different ways. Accident refers to an event happening without a plan or cause, whereas incident links the cause and the effect. That means the word incident is a better option, because while there was never a plan for a pedestrian dying, there is always a cause.

Thankfully, there is a heightened public awareness in the words we use to phrase everything from incident news reports to company instruction manuals. Reporters are becoming more self aware of their influence on the public, rephrasing their stories to better explain situations. In a recent Pensacola News Journal article, reporters delved into the backgrounds of two people involved in a crash. Many articles would read that the victim, Michael Tew, was hit by a car as he was walking. Instead, this article identified and humanized the driver as well as the victim, because Michael wasn’t hit by a car: he was hit by the driver operating the car.

When it comes to language barriers in news reporting, we still have a long way to go. We can start by talking about “incidents” instead of “accidents”; “people walking” instead of “pedestrians”; and drivers hitting people, instead of the cars. Let’s stop victim blaming with our words and start changing the language we use.


You can read more about victim blaming and removing the bias here:

When covering car crashes, be careful not to blame the victim

Making a case for transportation language reform: removing the bias

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