THE MAKE AND MODEL OF THE CAR IN AN INCIDENT LIKE THIS IS ALMOST ALWAYS COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT AND HAS NO BEARING ON THE OFFENCE
AS I WRITE THIS, fresh footage is appearing on news channels showing a fiery crash on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Police allege the vehicle that caused the three-car collision was stolen from the CBD and crashed by the thief. Regardless of any other details that may have emerged since the time of writing, the key facts remain; excessive speed was certainly a factor, three people are in hospital and it could have been much, much worse.
However, there’s something intrinsically interesting and also frustrating about this story which could be playing out in the media so very differently if it were for one small difference. Not a single headline in print, TV or web coverage has mentioned that the car at the centre of the investigation is a Toyota Kluger. Yes it has been mentioned as a passing detail toward the end of some articles but only as a bit of filler in the same way I might throw in some sales data into the closing paragraphs of a dry news story if I’m a bit short on words.
Why? Because the make and model of the car in an incident like this is almost always completely irrelevant and has no bearing on the offence that has been committed. And yet, media coverage of a grisly crash in 2020 looked very different. Like the Harbour Bridge incident, the collision on Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway began with the speed limit being obliterated by someone who shouldn’t have been driving at all. There were a number of other complexities and grim twists that unfortunately include the tragic death of four police officers.
One of the facts a majority of media outlets chose to include in virtually every headline was the make of the car. And they kept at it all the way through the driver’s trial to conviction and sentencing 11 months later. “Eastern Freeway Porsche driver Richard Pusey pleads guilty to three charges,” reads one of the final story headlines.
Can someone please explain to me why, among key information, the brand of the car is deemed so important that is must be specified in the headline? Furthermore, in every case that the marque is mentioned in the headline or first paragraph, there is no explanation later in the story to reveal why the journalist felt compelled to drag a German car manufacturer into the whole gruesome tale at all.
Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and the top stories were ‘Toddler snatched from Metricon home’ and ‘Human head found in Woolworths reusable bag’. You’d have to admit that the builder of the house and supplier of the shopping bag are as relevant as Alan Jones and the superfluous information stands out. But when a Porsche is bundled into the summary of a heinous crime, the general public laps it up as if the high-performance car is as socially unacceptable as the ice-jacked psycho at its wheel.
Mentioning the brand of a car involved in a crime is worse than bad, sensationalist journalism – it’s discriminatory. The reason the colour of the driver’s skin wasn’t part of the Harbour Bridge story is that it would suggest someone’s ethnicity has a bearing on how stupid or criminal they are. It’s the same for the driver’s, sexual orientation, religion or third-favourite pizza topping. Absurd right? And completely unacceptable if the publication decided to weave any of that information into the story. But no more absurd than implying a high-performance car is more responsible for road trauma and car crime than a sensible SUV. It’s the decisions of the person at the wheel that makes a car dangerous not the country it’s from.
If I’m wrong and we really did need to know it was a Porsche, and if the nation’s media is devoted to consistent journalism then tomorrow’s headlines will read ‘Toyota bursts into flames after high-speed Harbour Bridge crash’ but that’s not going to sell any more papers nor win any extra clicks, so I suspect that – in this instance at least - they’ll just stick to the facts.