Researchers at Tennessee State University say they’ve found shortcomings in how pedestrian deaths are documented and reported through local news outlets.
In a study presented Tuesday (PDF), the pair of researchers said they found that roughly 45 percent of pedestrian fatalities go unreported in local news outlets, and that when they do, the details provided by police and journalists may be contributing to misperceptions about why pedestrians die.
Anthony Campbell, assistant professor of public administration, said he decided to investigate walking deaths because he’d picked up on some misunderstandings while compiling stories of local victims for the Nashville Pedestrian Death Registry.
Last year was the deadliest on record for the city, with 23 killed.
Anecdotally, people didn’t understand where these were happening, or why.
“People tend to say, ‘Oh, well, down on Broadway or something? People get drunk, come here …’ ” he said. “And that’s not. None happen there. Mainly because cars aren’t going fast enough. And then when you look where we found deaths are occurring are out at the perimeter, where people are having to walk home or go from point A to point B and there isn’t a sidewalk.”
Stats provided last year by Walk Bike Nashville show the most deaths (12) occurred on Old Hickory Boulevard, followed by Gallatin and Main Street in East Nashville (11), Murfreesboro Pike (11) and Nolensville Pike (8).
Now Campbell’s university research finds some fault with police and journalists.
Along with urban studies researcher Cara Robinson, they found that initial traffic crash reports don’t seek many details about victims on foot — often only whether the person was in a crosswalk or wearing dark clothing.
Those limited details, without more context, could lead to “victim blaming,” they said.
In turn, local news outlets often pass on the basic facts without adding much original reporting. The researchers examined news articles, finding them “jarringly” formulaic, often completely composed of the routine facts that are included in federal crash reporting forms.
That can leave out details about the victim, and context about the quality of sidewalks and crosswalks, street lighting, other infrastructure and road conditions.
“Media plays a big part in how we have public perceptions about public safety issues,” Robinson said, adding, “there’s very little coverage of infrastructure at all.”
The team’s takeaway is that better information could help the public understand roadway dangers and guide policymakers when they try to redesign roadways to be more hospitable for people on foot or bicycle.
They said they plan to pursue further research, including specifically about Nashville, and that they want to suggest new ways of documenting pedestrian deaths by working together with local police and journalists.
“Ultimately, this is about decreasing the likelihood of dying while walking,” Campbell said.