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

4:37 PM CDT on October 11, 2013


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.

CT MimiLiu.jpg

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.

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