Wall Street Journal misrepresents ATV story

I have the greatest respect for the Wall Street Journal newspaper and the job that it does, day in and day out, in covering complex business and government news around the world. It’s a hugely difficult task, and the news team does the job possibly better than any other in the world.
But they blew it in a front page story Feb. 10, 2004, about ATV injuries. Journal reporter John Fialka and the paper’s editors played the Emotion Card with this story in attempting to grab readership, and it was not warranted.
For those of you who may have missed it, the story started out with a headline that said, “As ATVs Take Off in Sales, Deaths and Injuries Mount.” That’s exactly what you would expect, of course, in any such situation. As sales volume of any product increases, any characteristics associated with the product will increase as well. However, that doesn’t mean that the rate increases; that it gets more dangerous as sales increase.
The story also leads with a very emotionally-charge description of the death of a “petite” 13-year-old girl who suffered a broken neck in an ATV accident. She was injured when the ATV “veered out of control” and hit a tree, Fialka reports.
Here’s the problem so far: First we have a headline that mistakenly suggests that ATVs are becoming increasingly dangerous and then tells readers in the first two paragraphs that an ATV “sped off” and killed a child after it went out of control. That sounds like the ATV had a mind of its own—like something out of a Stephen King horror novel.
Just to make certain that readers don’t forget the emotion of the child’s death, Fialka wraps
up his story by revisiting the accident. That conclusion reinforces for the reader the negative approach that started in the first paragraph.
In wrapping up, Fialka quotes a West Virginia epidemiologist identified earlier in the story: “This was an event that could have been prevented,” goes the quote. In case you’re wondering, an epidemiologist is one who studies the “rapidly spreading outbreak of contagious disease.” I’m sorry, but that doesn’t seem to be a very good source here, even if the fellow has studied ATV accidents. At one point in the story he was quoted as saying there is “an epidemic,” based upon the number of deaths and accidents among young people.
The reporter does talk with representatives of the ATV industry, including Tim Buche, president of the Motorcycle Industry Council, a West Virginia lobbyist, a spokesman for Honda and some dealers.
But even when he quotes sources who criticize riding habits, he twists the writing to suggest a crash really was the machine’s fault.
For example, when he talks with a physician about victims treated at a hospital emergency room, 80% of whom were not wearing helmets, the physican’s quote is: “What stands out is the stupidity of some of these accidents.” Fair enough. Riders should wear helmets. We agree on that.
But then Fialka continues about adults who carry kids as passengers: “The kids are ‘almost always thrown off and sometimes the vehicle rolls over them.’” Shades of Stephen King again.
Here’s the bottom line on the story: It misrepresents the situation by appealing to the emotions, and the overriding message is that the industry is not united and motivated to self police itself about safety. That’s just not true.
In its defense, the Journal did offer some positive comments and it did print a few rebuttal letters.
What can we do?
My point here is not simply to complain about a poorly presented story, but to urge each of us to be more proactive in promoting safety. For example:

  • Dealers should not sell adult-size machines for use by ill-equipped children. OEMs should police this activity — I know some of you do — and punish repeat offenders.
  • OEMs also should consider adding another class of machine between the 90cc youth quad and the small adult size or change the age ranges. This would save the dealer and parent from lying about the use of an adult size machine for a child, make the riding safer and reduce exposure for the industry. And it would be easier to train this in-between type of rider. Chaz Rice, Editor of ATV Magazine, has an excellent column on this subject in his May 2004 issue.

The key is to be proactive about safety, not merely worry about negative news reports. psb

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