Dash cam journalism and the surveillance of cyclists on Australian roads

Audiences have long been an important source of news for journalists reporting on events in their communities. Social media has expanded this, by providing a range of direct and indirect ways for journalists to seek out information from the public. Many journalists talk about how social media has replaced the role of traditional letters-to-the-editor. It has also become an important source for audience generated photographs, video footage and commentary; content that can become the basis for entire news articles.

The proliferation of car dashboard mounted video cameras, or dash cams, is also changing the way that journalists report what happens on our public roads. This week, a number of traffic incidents involving cyclists were reported using dash cam footage as the central focus of the news articles.

On March 9, Daily Mail Australia reported that a cyclist and a car had collided at an intersection in Fitzroy North, Victoria, and that the incident had been recorded on a dash cam. The footage was originally uploaded to the popular Facebook page Dash Cam Owners Australia (DCOA). The post generated over 1700 comments, as well as a similar number of likes and other interactions.   

The footage is shot from the perspective of a driver queuing in traffic. A small car travelling in the opposite direction is seen slowly turning right across traffic into a side-street. A male cyclist riding on the road to the left of the queue collides at speed with the small vehicle as it cuts across his path.

Most of the discussion in the comments thread centres on who is “at fault”. Many confidently state that it is the cyclist who is at fault, with others taking the opportunity to argue that cyclists should not be on the road, should be forced to pay registration or should have mandatory license plates and insurance.

Regardless of who is at fault, the video clearly shows who comes off worse for wear. The cyclist is visibly flung into the air, his bicycle bent by the impact, and he slides from the car onto the road where he remains sitting in shock as bystanders come to his aid. Were circumstances slightly different, the cyclist could easily have been fatally injured.

Facebook pages such as DCOA provide audiences a forum in which to discuss the politics of how we share our public roads. But it is important to note that their surveillance of cyclists is asymmetrical, selective and to a certain extent dehumanising. With only short snippets of video to go on, there is little to add human faces and names to those caught up in an incident. There is no story here, nothing to foster sympathy for either the driver or the cyclist, both of whose lives have been impacted by this terrifying near miss.

So how did the media report on it?

The Mail focused on the “debate” aspect of the story, with its headline asking of the cyclist “was he in the wrong?”

“The 45 second video has divided Facebook users with some blaming the incident on the driver […] while others blamed the cyclist for the collision.”

The article quotes exclusively from Facebook comments on the DCOA page, with a selection of those who believe the driver to be at fault, contrasted with comments from those who blame the cyclist.

The story was also picked up by Yahoo News Australia, who reported that the cyclist was “flying up the inside” before its collision with the “slowly” turning small car.

“One person, who said they are a cyclist said the cyclist should have exercised more caution as the van blocked the view of the intersection,” Yahoo News reported.

News.com.au, along with syndicated News Corp papers The Chronicle and The Daily Mercury, were among a number of other outlets that carried the story. All three News Corp outlets framed the story in a similar way, focusing on who was “at fault” and portraying “both sides” of an online debate, all be it one confined to a single comment thread on Facebook.

Remarkably, it was up to LADBible, who while still framing the incident as a debate, had the good sense to inject a degree of sympathy into their reporting of the crash.

“Whoever was at fault, it probably wouldn’t have softened the blow for the cyclist who would have definitely been in pain from that collision […] hopefully their bike didn’t suffer too much damage from the incident and the car wasn’t badly affected.”

Did any of these journalists seek out a comment from police, an expert, a witness at the scene? Did any find the name of the driver, or the cyclist, or look into whether the incident had been reported to authorities?

It’s unclear from what is written in the articles, but it would appear unlikely to be the case.

Dash cam videos posted to social media represent ready-made news articles, complete with comments from members of the public, photos and video footage, an innate degree of newsworthiness and a proven record of virality. With newsrooms around the country pressed for time and resources, the temptation to simply rip and reproduce social media content is understandable.

Journalists should, however, be aware that there are broader discursive consequences to how any story is framed, and of how dehumanising dash cam footage can be for those involved in the incident.

In this case, it seems journalists were all too happy to reinforce the framing of traffic incidents as being a question of “who is to blame?”, rather than a question of the welfare of road users in general, all of whom face the possibility of death or injury as a matter of course on Australian roads.

Two days later, The Daily Mail Australia published a similar story, this one showing dash cam footage of a cyclist holding up traffic while trying to cross a four lane road. Last month, Yahoo News Australia published an article showing an incident in Sydney in which a cyclist was thrown from his bike after the passenger of a taxi opened their door into a bike lane. In January, 7 News Adelaide reported on dash cam footage showing a group of “idiot” cyclists overtaking cars in the Adelaide hills while crossing double road lines.

In all of these articles the focus is generally on “who is to blame?”, and on the social media discussion around and sharing of the video footage of the incident.

As cyclists increasingly become the subject of surveillance by other road users, questions need to be asked about the ethics of this kind of reporting and the influence it might have on public debate and discussion of active transport and cycling infrastructure. Dash cam journalism is convenient, easy, and fast, but it reduces those caught in traffic incidents to nameless and faceless categories; just another cyclist, driver, pedestrian or motorcyclist.

Dash cam journalism is not about the stories of those drivers, cyclists and other road users caught in the cameras eye. They are stories about how we, the audience, sit as judge and jury in the court of social media.

It would do well for us to question the the value of such journalism, and how it may be shaping our experiences of life on Australian roads.

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