Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hatchet job

Ronald Piper wasn’t done working Monday when he saw the headline that once again perpetuated myths about “medically unfit” truck drivers supposedly driving up numbers of highway crashes.

By now you’ve seen the headlines and every television news station’s version of the story on the GAO’s study of an untold number CDL holders having medical disabilities. Untold is the correct figure, since the study never claims to show how many CDL holders may be physically unfit to be behind the wheel, nor did it claim to define how many crashes were caused by truck drivers at all.

Land Line’s Special Report is available here, and the GAO study itself can be viewed by clicking here.

Ronald correctly pointed out the GAO study didn’t assign blame for wrecks among 15 specific cases highlighted by the GAO – Congress’ investigative arm. The 15 cases only identified that a driver with a certain medical issue was involved.

Unfortunately, a media power known as The Associated Press published a story about the GAO report that mislead readers, newspaper editors and TV news managers around the world into incorrectly believing that the report blamed truckers for more fatalities and said that the wrecks were directly related to medical fitness.

The Associated Press, despite suffering its own job slashes in recent years, continues to grow in influence because of accelerated job cuts at newspapers and television stations throughout the country.

I personally believe The AP does some great reporting. It’s too bad the GAO story became a case study in the power of a single bad story.

Here’s a list of bad headlines associated with the story, put together by our Copy Editor Elizabeth Andersen. The headlines shed no light on the GAO’s report, but instead perpetuate bad stereotypes about truck drivers in general.

  • “Unhealthy truckers levy toll on lives” – Tampa Tribune
  • “Drivers truckin’ despite disabilities” – Connecticut Post (Can you hear Smoky and the Bandit in the background?)
  • “Study reveals truck drivers threat” – KOMU-TV (Heavens, prepare for a new anti-terrorism Cabinet post to deal with truckers alone)
  • “Study: Ill truckers behind wrecks” – Time Magazine (Simply incorrect, because the cause of the wrecks hasn’t been declared)
  • “Trucks, buses too big to fail when it comes to safety” – Advertiser-Tribune, Tiffin, OH (Apparently barges, alien aircraft and Geo Metros are OK to fail)
  • “Be warned: Some truckers prone to unconsciousness” – Waco Tribune (Something tells me the phrase “Be warned” has been used a lot in Waco Tribune headlines since the early 1990s)
  • “Legions of sick truckers on the road” – from legions of local television stations
And Elizabeth’s favorite:
  • “Medically unfit truckers roam the highways and authorities know it” – eFluxMedia (Enough said).

And one day later, a slew of editorials gave a tongue lashing to commercial drivers and government officials. The Tiffin, OH, Advertiser-Tribune accused administrators and legislators of being hamstrung by the trucking industry, which may be “too important to regulate.”

To be fair, some news outlets put the GAO story in some sort of perspective, and may have whittled it down to meet space or truthiness standards.

But, like the general public remembering one unsafe truck barreling down the highway after 1,000 safe ones, truck drivers won’t forget the batch of knee-jerk negative news following the GAO report.

“We’re the mean, nasty truck drivers,” Ronald said sarcastically, repeating the stereotype he’s fought his entire career.

After a few minutes, Ronald had to go. He had to put aside his frustration from another hatchet job about his profession.

He had a job to do.