TRCLC 16-7

Blame-the-Victim Policy Narratives And Local-Level Transportation Policy

PIs: Colleen Casey
Co-PI: Stephen Mattingly
Project Start and End Dates: September 1, 2016 - March 31, 2018


Research Highlights

Policy literature discusses the intersection of media, public opinion, and politics, and their impact on public policy. Taking the issue of active transportation, the study examines if media reports regarding bike and pedestrian crashes appear important in shaping the policy narrative that defines the event. Identifying the factors that impact the media’s characterization of the vulnerable road users in bicyclist and pedestrian crashes as “guilty victims” versus “innocent victims” may enable the exploration of biases in media accounts and lead to a recognition of the cases that may lead to more unfavorable media coverage of a crash, which may influence the policy and infrastructure improvement recommendations made by jurisdictional decision-makers.

The research seeks to identify the impact of positive and negative media narratives related to crashes on the adoption of policy tools and infrastructure enhancements to improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety.  The study assesses and classifies the policy narratives present in a random sample of twelve states from 2003-2015. The project also assesses and classifies the policy tools used to improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety in a random sample of twelve states. The investigation tests the statistical association between the policy narratives that emerge and the policy tools used in the twelve states based on a set of predetermined hypotheses. The study identifies the strategies that experts and advocacy groups can use to improve the likelihood that scientific evidence enters into the policy decision-making process.

The study uses a mixed-methods research design to analyze qualitative coded data from the policy narratives that spread through the media. The study randomly selects twelve states from four regions as specified by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of United States and gathers 767 news articles related to bicycle and pedestrian crashes for the period 2003-2015. After looking for policy changes pertaining to bicyclists and pedestrians for each of the twelve states and coding them, the team uses logistic regression analysis to test several research hypotheses to determine if a statistical association exists between the type of media narratives that emerge in a given state and the policy tools that result, while controlling for economic, political and local factors that may influence policy tool selection.

The study finds that the victim narrative remains more prevalent in crashes. Furthermore, the episodic frame appears more prevalent, which suggests the reporting of crashes as isolated issues without consideration of any environmental factors.  This makes the news less important and fails to gather public opinion. The low rate of policy change in the states studied may result from the low visibility and salience provided by the media, which the modeling supports.  Overall, neither bicyclist nor pedestrian crashes regularly appear in media accounts; however, the media reporting of bicyclist crashes occurs significantly more often as a proportion of total fatal crashes than pedestrian crashes.  The logistic regression results indicate that pedestrians and adults (31-75), have a higher likelihood of victim characterization.  The probability of policy change has a positive relationship with crash reporting rate and a conservative political culture. Only city population influences the likelihood of infrastructure change.

Primarily, the study includes an extensive literature review related to policy narratives and the role of media accounts in the creation of policy. The project also uses modeling and statistical testing to identify the factors that influence the media’s characterization of vulnerable road users as victims or villains, and the adoption of infrastructure improvements and policy changes. The completion of these tasks results in the following recommendations:

  • Crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians need more visibility in media reporting.
  • Bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations must be actively involved in crash reporting and educating and informing the public about bicycle and pedestrian laws, policy, and safety issues.
  • Smaller communities may require grant programs to support bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvements.
  • Seek to identify the causes of bicyclists being characterized as victims at a much lower rate. 
  • Investigate the age biases present in the media’s victim characterization.


Final Report