Critical Mass Incident: A Study in Biased Reporting

15:26 Thu 05 Apr 2007
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The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Matier & Ross discussed an ugly incident that happened during the Critical Mass bike ride last month, in which some cyclists ended up attacking the minivan of a family visiting from Redwood City. Critical Mass is already controversial, and Matier & Ross do a great job of axe-grind reporting to add fuel to the fire. Bike/car politics aside, I think it’s a highly instructive example of how to slant a story.

Before going further, I want to point out that I’ve never gone to a Critical Mass ride, although I have encountered them, and that I cycle in San Francisco almost every day and have done so for seven years. I also think that attacking a car is unacceptable.

Critical Mass is a bike ride that occurs on the last Friday of the month, often involving hundreds of cyclists. In a show of cyclist solidarity, and as a way of taking streets back from cars, the cyclists travel en masse, and usually ignore traffic regulations, including red lights.

From what I can make out, the family in the minivan inadvertently wandered into the path of the Critical Mass ride last Friday night. They may or may not have hit a cyclist and then tried to leave the scene. The cyclists reacted in outrage to whatever had happened, surrounded the car, scratching and damaging it, and apparently smashing a rear window, until police arrived, then demanded that the police arrest the driver for hit and run.

Again, I don’t agree with the assault on the car. But Matier & Ross portray the driver (Susan Ferrando) and her family as the innocent suburbanite victims of incomprehensible bicycling savages who turn on them for no reason:

Confusion, however, quickly turned to terror, she said, when the swarming cyclists began wildly circling around and then running into the sides of her Toyota van.

Filled with panic, Ferrando said, she started inching forward until coming to a stop at Post and Gough streets, where she was surrounded by bikers on all sides.

A biker in front blocked her as another biker began pounding on the windshield. Another was pounding on her window. Another pounded the other side.

“It seemed like they were using their bikes as weapons,” Ferrando said. One of the bikers then threw his bike — shattering the rear window and terrifying the young girls inside.

All the while, Ferrando was screaming, “There are children in this car! There are children in this car!”
—Philip Matier, “Minivan’s rude introduction to Critical Smash”, San Francisco Chronicla Wed 4 Apr 2007 (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/04/04/BAGF7P12RN23.DTL)

It isn’t until two paragraphs later, after the victim/aggressor sides have already been firmly assigned for the reader, that we find out there might, maybe, have been some tiny, slight, provocation for the cyclists’ actions:

According to police, Ferrando had allegedly tapped one of the cyclists’ tires.

Hmm. Still doesn’t sound like much, though, right? Most people would have their opinion set right there. I found it somewhat dubious, however, that cyclists would spontaneously attack a car for no discernible reason, or for “tapping a tire”. Possible, but unlikely. But you don’t get any other information on that from Matier & Ross—you have to look at the next day’s follow-up article in the Chronicle for that:

Bicyclists who witnessed the event countered that Ferrando had accelerated recklessly through a crowd of riders, hitting one and knocking him from his bike, then attempted to flee the scene before riders surrounded the vehicle. They complained that police didn’t charge her with a crime.
—Michael Cabanatuan, Jaxon Van Derbeken, Cecilia M. Vega, Chronicle Staff Writers, “Clash reignites road wars”, San Francisco Chronicla Thu 5 Apr 2007 (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2007/04/05/MNGFAP353S1.DTL)

Huh. Well, that casts a different light on the situation. I still think that attacking the car is wrong, but surrounding it and waiting for police to arrive makes a lot of sense.

The following is not what I think happened, but you could just as easily slant the story this way:

The wilder elements of the usually-peaceful Critical Mass ride lashed out in anger on Friday night, after a suburbanite in a minivan ploughed through the ride in Japantown, knocking over a rider and then trying to flee the scene. The riders, sick of years of police neglect on car-bike hit-and-run incidents and outraged that a motorist would attempt one at an established celebration of biking, surrounded the vehicle and shouted at the driver. Some of the cyclists went so far as to scratch the car, and one of them threw a bike at the rear window
—my fictionalized account

That’s about as fictional as Matier & Ross’s—which is to say very. However, it fits in with the available facts about as well as theirs does.

So… time to apply the first three questions.

Who benefits from the way that Matier & Ross tell the story? Here, the first benefit I see is emotional. Lots of drivers don’t like cyclists, can’t stand Critical Mass, and are quite frustrated by the fact that it gets in their way. This audience feels justification for their attitude, and righteousness in their behavior. (Note that my fictional account provides the inverse emotional benefit for cyclists.) Beyond that, despite its infrequent (once per month) nature and its relatively minor size, Critical Mass is nonetheless a challenge to car culture, to the very idea that roads are for cars. The car culture in this country is very important, and clearly car-centric thinking benefits from an article that casts both critics and alternatives (Critical Mass participants being portrayed as both) as crazed loons. This translates into resource benefits, as discussed below.

What resources are involved in the clash between cars and cyclists? Huge amounts of money are spent on cars, and on the infrastructure to support cars, in this country. Public attitudes have some (if often too slight) impact on government expenditure, and of course on the spending habits of the public itself. Promote alternatives to driving and you get a shift in money spent (publicly and privately) away from the car industry and towards other industries. Not that a lot of resources are involved in this particular clash, but on a larger level money is definitely involved in attempts to shape public attitudes about cycling, driving, and transport.

What emotions are being encouraged in the article? As I mentioned in addressing the first question, righteous anger is the emotion encouraged for the readers, that and sympathy for the victimized motorists. A certain amount of disgust, too, in that the cyclists are made out to be profoundly unsympathetic and objectionable.

One Response to “Critical Mass Incident: A Study in Biased Reporting”

  1. NHR Says:

    Ask Dennis Transportation (limousine driver)
    Phone number deleted

    Ferrando, Serrando (minivan driver)
    Address info deleted
    Phone number deleted

    EDITED BY TADHG: NHR, thanks for the comment, and I’m interested in more info about the incident (did I miss something about a limo being involved?), but I’m not comfortable with posting contact details for the people involved on a public site, so I edited that out.

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