Trib Report of Fatal Crash Blames “Out-of-Control Truck,” Not Deadly Driver

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Craft's truck came to a stop after it struck a retaining wall. Photo: Champaign-Urbana News Gazette

The Chicago Tribune’s reporting on the tragic case of a 20-year-old woman from Bridgeport, who was killed by a reckless driver in Urbana, represents a particularly egregious case of “robot car writing.” This term refers to the media’s tendency to describe traffic crashes in such a way that no blame is put on the motorist. Instead, crashes are portrayed as blameless “accidents,” and sentences are constructed so that it sounds like the vehicle drove itself.

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Mimi Liu

On Wednesday morning, Mimi Liu, an economics major at the University of Illinois, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Chinese Fine Arts Society, and a talented piano player, was walking near campus with fellow student Spandana Mantravadi, also 20. Willie Craft Sr., 58, had been driving his pickup truck erratically for nearly a mile before he drove over a curb and down a sidewalk, killing Liu and injuring Mantravadi, who is currently hospitalized in good condition.

Craft fled the scene and drove for several more blocks until he hit a three-foot retaining wall and his truck came to a stop. Police ticketed him for driving without insurance and improper lane usage, and a blood sample was taken, which could result in additional charges.

When I read a short article about the crash in the Tribune yesterday titled “U. of I. student struck and killed by out-of-control truck,” I was troubled to see language that made it sound like the pickup had a mind of its own. Today that story was replaced by a longer piece with biographical info about Liu, but a version of the short with the original title is still up on the website for WGN-TV, a station owned by the Trib. Note the sentences in the WGN post that seem to describe a vehicle acting of its own accord:

A University of Illinois student from Chicago was killed when she was struck by a pick-up truck that plowed onto a campus sidewalk in Champaign-Urbana.

Mimi Liu, 20, of the 3600 block of South Lock Street, was walking near McKinley Hall on the U of I campus yesterday when police say the truck jumped a curb, sideswiped a car, and struck both Liu and another student on the sidewalk.

Today’s Trib story includes more of this kind of writing. “The women, both students, were hit by a pickup truck that careened over a curb and struck them on the sidewalk,” is one example. Another is, “The dark 1993 Chevrolet pickup had been seen by witnesses driving erratically for almost a mile before the crash, blowing out a tire and sideswiping another vehicle, police said.”

Words matter, and responsible journalism calls for reporting on fatal crashes in a way that doesn’t portray these tragedies as unfortunate events that couldn’t have been prevented. Craft made a decision to drive recklessly, so Liu’s death wasn’t an “accident.” Deadly motorists need to be held responsible for their actions.

  • Hart Noecker

    Turns out we’ve been enjoying driver-less cars all along!

  • Chicagio

    The impersonal nature of cars is fascinating to me. Not only does it get that sort of treatment in the media but I think it goes a long way towards defining car-car, bike-car, ped-car relations. Is anyone aware of any books or other writing on this sort of thing?

  • Anonymous

    This is not really the same thing, but in “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud discusses the phenomenon (“projection”?) where a driver is more likely to say “he hit me!” than “his car hit my car!”

  • tamanduabeijo

    As we all know, killing with a car is only a crime if you’re intoxicated, and even then just barely. Imagine this thinking being applied to guns.

    “Well officer, it’s true, I shot him. But it was just an accident!”
    “Sir, have you been drinking?”
    “No officer, not a drop.”
    “OK, then, here’s a citation for “Shooting a Citizen in the Public Way”. Have a safe evening.”
    “I’ll try, thanks officer.”

  • Alex Oconnor

    As long as cars can turn left or right or go forward….we are all free…..of responsibility.

    My smart phone says turn left on Ashland cause its faster…

  • cdh

    I went to journalism school almost 40 years ago, and, obviously, some things have changed. But back then we were taught to use “robot car” language as a way to avoid possible libel. What seems obvious at a crime scene often turns out to be not true with a more thorough investigation. Probably most readers have experienced this when reading breaking news stories; what is reported as fact often turns out to not be true (e.g., early reports of the Navy Yard shooting said there were two gunmen). In this case, witnesses saw a pick-up all over the road, but they may not be able to say who the driver was. Just as the police carefully build the case to present for charges, a careful, good writer builds a story based only on the verifiable facts. In this case, the writer should describe the truck’s actions and then quote the police as saying that Craft was the driver who should have been in control of the truck. Or at least this was the way it was done 40 years ago.

  • “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do” by Tom Vanderbilt touches on these topics in many sections. It provides great insights into the psychology of driving and drivers.

  • Chicagio

    Thanks!

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