On Ethics

Did An NPR Story Empower Road Rage Against Bicyclists?

SAN FRANCISCO - Bicyclists commute along Market Street on the 12th annual Bike to Work Day May 18, 2006 in San Francisco, California. i
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
SAN FRANCISCO - Bicyclists commute along Market Street on the 12th annual Bike to Work Day May 18, 2006 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Reporters and editors have to make editorial judgments every day for which there is no single right answer. NPR West Bureau Chief Jason DeRose and reporter Alex Schmidt made one such call as they edited Schmidt's story about bicyclists in Los Angeles who move in group "trains" for support and safety. Schmidt recorded her experiences while biking with one train and then separately interviewed a driver who admitted to threatening bicyclists with her car.

Some listeners did not like how DeRose and Schmidt decided to handle the driver's admission in their report. See what call you might have made.

We pick up midway through the story:

SCHMIDT: And then there's the issue of safety. In fact, on the morning of the ride, a car cut through the single file of bicycles, missing one by just a couple of feet.

TRAIN LEADER CHARLES DANDINO: That was a dangerous maneuver.

SCHMIDT: So perhaps the greatest obstacle to bike trains is that drivers don't like sharing the road.

JACKIE BURKE: It's like they enjoy taking up the lanes.

SCHMIDT: Jackie Burke has lived in LA her whole life, and bicyclists slowing her down drive her crazy.

BURKE: It's very frustrating to the point where I want to just run them off the road. And I've actually kind of done one of those drive-really-close-to-them kind of things just to scare them to try to intimidate them to kind of get out of my way.

SCHMIDT: With road conditions like those, it's no wonder our conductor has been playing a mellow soundtrack piped through a small speaker...

After the piece aired, tweets like this one from handle @KristinJVal started arriving almost immediately:

woah WTF, wow. Don't usually hear NPR guests saying they intentionally bully and threaten death

And this one from handle @msfour:

At the very least, it's disappointing that the remark passed without comment or response.

Then came the emails. "NPR should know better than to allow quotes like this without adding that this individual is doing something both illegal and life-threatening," wrote Lauren Welsh of Atlanta, GA.

Frank Wilson of New Haven, Conn., expressed "disgust" with the editorial decision, explaining with some philosophical thoughtfulness: "A society which fails to challenge aggressive actions by citizens who essentially put others in physical peril by driving cars (which can be deadly weapons) too closely, is to my mind, no longer civil. Perhaps the last decade of wars has made some callous, but to fail to point out that aggressive driving is legally actionable and potentially fatal to unprotected bicyclists, is in my opinion a glaring journalistic lapse."

DeRose and Schmidt, however, say that they purposefully left the comment to stand on its own. They did so after discussing some of these same objections. DeRose, an accomplished editor who oversees the largest bureau outside of Washington, remains convinced that the right call was made. He wrote to me:

Aggressive drivers are a problem for bikers in L.A.. While recording, the reporter observed near misses between bikes and cars. She then spoke with drivers who don't like sharing the road with bikes. It's clear from the reporter's framing of the quote that this behavior—aggressive driving—is precisely one of the reasons why the bike caravans exist in the first place. The quote demonstrates exactly what bikers are up against.

Schmidt, who has received the brunt of the complaints, is a little more ambivalent:

I think a story about bicyclists feeling threatened, and banding together for safety, benefits from the perspective of one of the people causing the fear. It's shocking to hear someone speak this way, but it is the reality of how many drivers feel. Road rage is a problem.

Did the statement deserve a response? Truly, I am not sure. On one hand, I can see how leaving it hanging may sound like we think it's okay behavior, or maybe just "funny, haha." On the other hand, there are plenty of behaviors that don't need to be acknowledged as wrong. In a story about murder, must we point out that murder is illegal? Elder abuse? Verbally harassing someone on the street? Where do we draw the line? (There are laws on the books in both California and L.A. that aim to keep bicyclists safe.) Are there behaviors that are just in the process of being collectively "called out" and acknowledged as wrong? As we slowly evolve from car-centric cities to multimodal ones, perhaps bicyclist harassment is one of these.

I do think Jackie Burke indicted herself without help from me or any response at all. But again, I am not sure of the answer here. I'd also be interested in sussing out, if the statement did get a response, what exactly that would be.

If anyone cares to engage, I'd love a wider conversation about this and it would certainly inform my reporting going forward.

Agree with their decision or not, at least they made it openly and thoughtfully—a judgment call, in other words, made with defensible reasoning that reflects the care and intelligence that goes into so much of NPR's reporting.

Still, I side with the critics who would have liked a line noting that what the driver admitted to was dangerous and illegal. It could be as simple as the reporter saying: "That, of course, can be dangerous and illegal." The lack of such editorial guidance and context is a common complaint from listeners about many NPR stories, as I wrote last week. Otherwise, it seems as if the driver's attitude and actions in this case are normal, even acceptable. At least to me.

But I recognize the journalistic legitimacy and storytelling power of DeRose's argument. It credits the audience with having the intelligence to know that buzzing a bicyclist is dangerous and illegal, even if it is not so obvious as murder.

The edit of the story also draws on that famous advice to writers, filmmakers and radio producers to evoke rather than explain. Jackie Burke's quote certainly evokes.

Each of us will have our own judgment of whether this was enough on its own, within the context of the story, or whether an on-air comment by the reporter would have been helpful or, instead, unnecessary and perhaps even annoying.

In a related matter, the piece, which aired July 29 on Morning Edition, was a repeat of a story that first ran last December. Host Renee Montagne introduced the July airing as an "encore report," but if you didn't know what this meant, you didn't realize that you were listening to a rerun. In a column last November, I agreed with listeners who demanded that reruns be better labeled. I still think that.

Part of the logic behind the encores is that different NPR shows largely have different audiences. That makes sense. The first airing of this particular story on Weekends On All Things Considered, however, received many similar complaints about the driver's quote, suggesting that perhaps the complaints should have been addressed in some way the second time around.

Editorial researcher Annie Johnson contributed to this article.

Correction Aug. 22, 2014

The last sentence was clarified to note that the complaints after the first airing also were about the driver's quote.

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