Trends in local newspaper reporting of London cyclist fatalities 1992-2012: the role of the media in shaping the systems dynamics of cycling
Accident analysis and prevention 2015
Background Successfully increasing cycling across a broad range of the population would confer important health benefits, but many potential cyclists are deterred by fears about traffic danger. Media coverage of road traffic crashes may reinforce this perception. As part of a wider effort to model the system dynamics of urban cycling, in this paper we examined how media coverage of cyclist fatalities in London changed across a period when the prevalence of cycling doubled. We compared this with changes in the coverage of motorcyclist fatalities as a control group. Methods Police records of traffic crashes (STATS19) were used to identify all cyclist and motorcyclist fatalities in London between 1992 and 2012. We searched electronic archives of London's largest local newspaper to identify relevant articles (January 1992–April 2014), and sought to identify which police-reported fatalities received any media coverage. We repeated this in three smaller English cities. Results Across the period when cycling trips doubled in London, the proportion of fatalities covered in the local media increased from 6% in 1992–1994 to 75% in 2010–2012. By contrast, the coverage of motorcyclist fatalities remained low (4% in 1992–1994 versus 5% in 2010–2012; p = 0.007 for interaction between mode and time period). Comparisons with other English cities suggested that the changes observed in London might not occur in smaller cities with lower absolute numbers of crashes, as in these settings fatalities are almost always covered regardless of mode share (79–100% coverage for both cyclist and motorcyclist fatalities). Conclusion In large cities, an increase in the popularity (and therefore ‘newsworthiness’) of cycling may increase the propensity of the media to cover cyclist fatalities. This has the potential to give the public the impression that cycling has become more dangerous, and thereby initiate a negative feedback loop that dampens down further increases in cycling. Understanding these complex roles of the media in shaping cycling trends may help identify effective policy levers to achieve sustained growth in cycling.