In my last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about how framing shapes the way we process information and how biases — our own and the media’s — cloud our understanding of risk. I was going to leave the topic at that. But this morning, I stepped out onto my porch to find a textbook example of how sloppy, falsely balanced, narrowly conceived reporting can make a trivialized mess out of a serious topic.
It’s a remarkably appalling piece of work, revelatory in its way as you strip back its layers. And so in much the same manner as my ancestors might've passed a lazy summer afternoon whittling, I’ve decided to carve it to bits before your eyes on this sunny day — not just because my local paper riled me up, but because I think there are some universal lessons about the way the media's twin obsession with novelty and conflict feeds a culture of fear that can turn even the most gentle pursuits into actors in a false tragedy.
The article is titled “Should your kid come along for the ride?” (the online version was posted under the rejiggered title “How young is too young to bike with your kid?”). In case there’s any ambiguity to those titles, this is a lifestyle feature about young parents riding their bikes with infants in tow. It appeared on the front page of the Life section of The Globe & Mail – Canada’s national newspaper, roughly equivalent to the New York Times or Wall St. Journal in stature. If you’re a Times reader, imagine one of those upscale-trend stories that fronts the Styles section and you’ll know roughly what we’re dealing with here.
Anyway, let’s begin with the framing. First, the story appears in the lifestyle section, which tells Globe readers that what they’re dealing with is an issue of roughly equal importance to “Is it ever OK to wear shorts at work?” and “Lip-smacking shortcakes for a long, hot summer.” This is not, in other words, a serious report about urban infrastructure or transitioning to lower-emissions transportation or public safety. This is not even in the same constellation of importance as what new cars are available for sale, which in the Globe — as in many newspapers — gets its own entire section in the marquee Saturday edition. Nope, this is a shallow trend piece. Is your baby safe in a bike trailer? And what colors should she be wearing for fall?
Next: the slug. Like many newspapers, the Globe uses slugs to place its features in subcategories — all the better to guide the reader’s response ahead of actually finding out what the story is — and this one’s slugged “Safety.” The core issue, if not the only issue, involved in the decision to bike with your small children is whether it’s safe. And that slug, combined with the open-question headline – Should your kid even be in that bike trailer? Have you thought this through? — implies, before you’ve even started reading the story, that the safety of the endeavor is very much in question.
There is, in fact, a definitive answer to this question, and the Globe dutifully reports it:
Statistics Canada does not collect data on how many parents bike with their kids. But it does monitor cycling fatalities involving young children. According to StatsCan, no children aged zero to four died from being on a bike with their parents from 2001 to 2007.
But wait. The passage above is, for some reason, the 14th paragraph in a 16-paragraph story. It’s treated like an incidental detail, an afterthought after the flip — a placement well known in the newspaper biz to guarantee a significant percentage of readers won’t ever get to it.
So what’s deemed more important than the actual facts of the risk involved, which is evidently in the near-zero range? Well, the story opens with the derring-do of one dad who specially rigged a car seat into his bike’s caboose, because he’s an adventurous, devil-may-care sort, a former bike courier and competitive cyclist. To actually ride a bike around town with your kid, we're to understand, is difficult, complicated, probably best left to (ex-)professionals. And even they are well aware of the danger. “His in-laws weren’t so excited,” the Globe reports. “In fact, they were terrified.”
So once we’ve met this brave/foolhardy soul and his jury-rigged competitive car-seated bike carriage, where do we go first for a little context? There are many directions this could be taken. There are few big cities in Canada or elsewhere without grassroots cycling advocacy groups. The boom in urban cycling and push for better infrastructure is increasingly prominent news (it was indeed front-and-center in Toronto’s recent civic election). The state of the art in European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam has demonstrated unequivocally that the more people are out biking in a city, the safer it gets. I can personally attest that Mikael Colville-Andersen – proprietor of Copenhagenize.com, an expat Canadian living in Denmark, and a vocal cycling advocate who toured several Canadian cities earlier this year to talk about all this stuff — is easy to contact and a fascinating and engaging interview subject.
So yes: no shortage of ways to discuss this. What’ll it be, Globe & Mail Life reporter?
One vocal opponent to parents riding with their babies is Pat Hines, founder and executive director of Safe Moves, a safety organization in the United States. In an online video, Ms. Hines flatly states: “There is no age when a child should go on a bicycle with a parent … Who would want to take a chance of the child falling? Even if you weren’t in danger of being hit by a car, just a slip, the baby goes down and the baby would go down very hard.”
But never mind — think of the children who aren’t mine! Think of the risk we can’t prove with actual stories of Canadian children who’ve had such a terrible thing happen! Just because there’s no evidence this happens doesn’t mean it isn’t a real risk! Be afraid! Death lurks on every bike lane!
All right. So now that we’ve determined that you’d have to be an infanticidal maniac to bring your baby on a bike ride, let’s continue. Next up in the story we’ve got a mom who once had a serious bike accident before she had kids. So now the story carries on for a bit about her arduous multiyear physiotherapy, about how she “shares Ms. Hines’s fear of falling,” how her first kid wasn’t allowed near her bike but the second one is being tried out in a trailer, which the Globe reluctantly concedes is “generally considered the safest way to transport kids.”
OK. So that’s 12 paragraphs of a 16-paragraph story. Fear tinges every single one. If you’re lunkheaded enough to not get the picture and stubborn enough to keep reading, the Globe will now present the other side. We go to a “cycling advocate” — which is to say, in subtle journalistic terms, that the source is suspect — who happens to be the director of a transportation research institute. Note not only that this “cycling advocate” is only secondarily identified as the office holder of a more general-interest research body but that Pat Hines was not identified as an “anti-cycling advocate” or framed with any other qualifier, even though her website notes that she founded Safe Moves after her close friend was killed in a cycling accident.
Anyway, here’s that cycling zealot — uh, advocate — who is the first voice thus far in the story to note the actual relative risk involved:
Cycling advocate Todd Litman, Executive Director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, says many people overestimate the risk of riding with children. “There is no greater risk to biking with children than there is taking them in a car,” says Mr. Litman, who rode a bike with his sons (now university-aged) when they were three weeks old.
The very next paragraph is the one I cited off the top, the hard data from StatsCan noting that the sum total of 21st century cycling fatalities for children under 4, during a decade that has seen increased cycling rates in cities across Canada, is: 0. The last two paragraphs note what a delight it is to bike around with your kids.
Thus endeth the only feature-length report the Globe & Mail will likely bother with this summer on urban cycling and child safety.
I’ve run on so long already I may as well belabor my point about bias. We’ve got false balance between a self-proclaimed expert in the U.S. with no knowledge of urban cycling conditions in Canada spewing hypothetical fear scenarios on one hand, and actual parents riding their kids around Canadian cities on the other. We’ve got no mention whatsoever of the impact of ridership volume and infrastructure quality on overall cycling safety. (Hint: These are the definitive factors, not what kind of seat you strap your kids into.)
There’s no discussion of relative risk at all and absolutely no effort made to expand on the only credentialed expert’s claim that biking is no more dangerous for your kids than driving. There’s also a sidebar in which a highly credentialed doctor raises the specter of “minute injury to a child’s brain” from trying to support the weight of a helmet, without getting into why a kid in a bike trailer would need a helmet when a kid in a carseat, for example, doesn’t. (You want to know how reckless I am? My 2-year-old’s been on many bike rides in our trailer; we don't even own a helmet that fits him.)
This is, to be clear, an objectively “accurate” piece of journalism. Everyone’s name is spelled correctly and they said and did everything the story says they said and did. It’s also a study in status quo bias, a source of availability bias for every nervous new parent thinking about buying a bike trailer, and a textbook example of how framing a story — are bikes dangerous for small children? — determines how that story’s information will be presented and how it will resonate with its audience.
The red herring of “balance” in mainstream journalism is, by default, a defense of the status quo. Streets are for cars, cars are the only safe and logical form of urban transport for parents of young children, and cycling is a niche hobby for a radical fringe. This is worth remembering whenever we talk about sustainability, because sustainability is an intrinsic challenge to the status quo; indeed it aspires to supplant the status quo, to become the new normal. And so when you read about it, do keep the source’s biases in mind. They are likely legion, and they are surely trying to convince you not to take this challenge too seriously.
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