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.

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