More on why words matter: Deconstructing a headline

crash headlines
Screen capture CBC

Words are powerful. They shape the way we see the world around us.

It's a quote I have used a couple of times, from bike activist Aaron Naparstek. I thought of it again as I saw this tweet from urban designer Gil Penalosa:

That turned out to be the cut line under the photo, not the headline, which was actually worse:

Kelowna cyclist mourned after fatal crash into car door

Both the cut line and the headline do not state what happened, which is that the driver of the car opened the door in the face of the cyclist. The parked car did not suddenly open; the cyclist did not run into an object that was sitting there in her path; she was killed by the action of a person, the driver of a vehicle.

Words do make a difference. The way the CBC wrote it, the cyclist almost sounds at fault for running into a door. Or the car is at fault for suddenly opening in some weird way. It is as if they have gone out of their way to contrive words that take the driver out of the story. And of course there has to be this: [she] "slammed into the door and, despite wearing a helmet, sustained serious head injuries. She died in hospital two days later." An honest headline would have said:

Driver opens car door in front of 38 year old mother on a bicycle, killing her.

But they never say that. And whatever you do, don't read the comments, most of which are complaining about cyclists running red lights and stop signs and that she clearly was the author of her own misfortune.

It doesn't have to be like this. Sarah Goodyear of Citylab wrote about a simple thing that drivers could do that would almost stop this immediately:

When exiting a vehicle on the traffic side, use your right hand to open the door.

I have been trying to do this since I read it, because it makes so much sense, you have to twist your body in a way that you have to see what is coming up behind you. It is far more effective than looking in the rear view mirror because it makes you think about it, take the time and turn.

When I am on a bike, I try and watch for cars with lights on, I try to look in rear view mirrors, I try to keep a few feet away, but that's hard in door lane bike lanes. But it shouldn't be my problem. Cars don't open up and kill cyclists, cyclists don't just randomly crash into doors, people open them without looking and kill people on bikes. The CBC and other media should just say that and stop blaming doors for what drivers are doing.

Words do matter.

More on why words matter: Deconstructing a headline
It makes a difference how you write it.

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