Most journalists are wary of any mention of advocacy. They keep their distance from the issues and prize their objectivity above all else.
But one Fort Myers newspaper reporter is proud of the “advocate” label. In the last year, she has pushed for better bicycle safety on Florida roads by not only informing the community about what is a serious problem in this state, but by driving engagement on social media, partnering with the local hospital system and cycling community to raise awareness, offer solutions and even raise money for bicycle lights to be used at night.
The ongoing efforts were recognized recently in a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, which takes note of the fact Florida is the most dangerous place in the country for cyclists – and Southwest Florida is one of the more perilous places in the state.
In 2014, there were 120 bicyclists killed in Florida. It is the most lethal place in the nation for people traveling by bike.
Part of that has to do with the fact that our roadways are designed for heavy, fast traffic. There is also the fact that we have year-long riding weather, which means there is more of an opportunity for a crash. And then of course there is not enough safety education and there are many bad drivers. But it’s also a problem with the laws.
News-Press Reporter Janine Zeitlin said her ongoing coverage of the issue first started with her own fear. She used to love riding bicycles, but she stopped about six years ago. She said she is afraid of the cars. Given the statistics we have, that fear is not unfounded.
Then last year, there was a series of horrible bicycle accidents in Fort Myers. Zeitlin wrote them all as part of a larger story on bicycle safety- or lack thereof in this community. The story garnered a lot of reaction, and Zeitlin then set up a community page on Facebook.
Visitors were invited to share helpful advice and insight on the “Share the Road” page, which encouraged cyclists to operate more defensively and motor vehicle drivers to use greater caution.
The stories began piling up: Numerous crashes and close-calls involving bicyclists and motorists. In some cases, the driver was just being careless. In other cases, it was recklessness or even intentional aggression and harm.
Zeitlin started running the numbers. She found the trend of bicyclists injured and killed in Florida was increasing at a rapid clip. Further, the laws in place to punish those who seriously injure or kill bicyclists were minimal. Victims would suffer massive injuries, and motorists would simply receive a traffic citation.
That resulted in a collaborative project involving two other reporters that examined five years’ worth of data, combined with profiles of a dozen people killed in bicycling crashes in the are just in the span of a year. Another aspect of the story focused on other cities and state governments that are doing more to make bicyclists safer.
Response was overwhelming. Most lauded the newspaper’s efforts, though some disgruntled motorists still complained that cyclists shouldn’t even be allowed on the road.
The newspaper subsequently hosted a “solutions booth” at a local cycling event, and the social media page continues to look at different angles of the issue – including a project that follows the “ghost bike memorial” sites for fallen cyclists.
In reflecting on her role in the ongoing coverage and advocacy, Zeitlin says it has been natural. She has no qualms expressing the fact that she cares about the fact that bicyclists are dying on our roads, and sees no breach of journalistic integrity to do something about it. In noting her desire to continue to be proactive, she says:
“You don’t have to be a reporter divorced from humanity.”
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
How a Florida newspaper began advocating for bike safety, Sept. 15, 2015, By Susannah Nesmith, Columbia Journalism Review
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