Dealing with the media (particularly the press)

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 107.

The start of January saw a daily deluge of deliberately provocative stories in the Cambridge News on the subject of cyclists, blatantly designed to rack up webpage hits (and therefore advertising) by encouraging ‘cyclists vs motorist’ squabbling in the comments section of their website.

For some time we have been dismayed by the quality of stories produced by some local reporters who seem to feel that churning out cheap articles, rather than high quality thoroughly researched journalism demonstrating skill and flair, is the way to sell newspapers. Maybe in the short term it is.

The media, however, relies on information coming from news ‘generators’ – like our own Campaign, for instance, so this is – to some extent – a two-way street.

Less-skilled journalists will exploit the contested political space of cycle campaigning by exaggerating this situation into one of conflict, rather than do any actual journalism

We wish to see the media adopt high standards of investigative journalism in dealing with the complex issues involved. Cycle campaigning by its very nature involves dealing with controversial topics. Proposals from any group regarding reallocation of road space and the spending of public funds on improving infrastructure involve hard political choices.

Inevitably therefore, less skilled journalists, who are unfamiliar with the art of proper journalism, will exploit this contested political space to exaggerate this situation into one of disagreement. Newspapers naturally thrive on controversy in order to sell newspapers and advertising, but this can and should be achieved through provoking intelligent, evidence-based debate amongst its readership, rather than cheap conflict.

The Times newspaper’s ‘Cities Safe For Cycling’ campaign is a good example of what can be achieved by quality journalism, and they are getting a lot of credit and goodwill as a result

Reports of people being killed and injured in motor vehicle collisions should be placed in the context of road safety research. Such reports offer gory entertainment when they should be a moment for serious reflection on how we use our roads, vehicles, speed and automotive freedom. The media could be taking an investigative lead on real road safety issues.

We’ve therefore published a media engagement policy. You can read this on our website at:

The key points are:

  • In order to deter selective quoting, our statements to the press are being published in full on our website/blog. Practitioners of lazy, poor-quality journalism, will learn that such tactics will be exposed, leading to loss of trust by readers.
  • We will encourage the media to run positive campaigns and innovative stories, meeting good standards of reporting, on issues that we are working on.The Times newspaper’s ‘Cities Safe For Cycling’ series (2012-13) is a good example of what can be achieved, and they are getting a lot of credit and goodwill as a result.
  • Where the intention of the media or specific journalists appears to us to be one of creating an exaggerated ‘war’ between cyclists and motorists (never mind the fact that many people who cycle also drive), we are unlikely to engage or respond. We’ve reluctantly identified one Cambridge News journalist who is particularly prone to this and so we’re simply ignoring his requests.
  • Where media articles fail to meet good standards of journalism, we are unlikely to help publicise them (e.g. through social media), to avoid giving such articles more publicity than is deserved. There has, for instance, barely been any re-tweeting of articles from the local paper during February.
  • Continued supply of early information to journalists will be dependent on balanced coverage meeting good standards of investigative journalism.
  • Where the media are continually repeating the same story (e.g. ‘Cyclists not using cycle paths a waste of taxpayer money’) in order to whip up controversy rather than report anything genuinely new, if we choose to engage we will increasingly point such journalists to standard quotations or policies, or increasingly bland statements.
  • We will try to set the agenda rather than be led by the media’s latest fad.
  • We explicitly do not expect journalists to be biased towards cycling, but we do expect there to be objectivity, appropriate balance and proper reporting.

We do not believe a boycott of any media outlet is the best way forward. Instead, a more nuanced approach, outlined above, is our preferred option. The media will continue to print stories about cyclists, whether or not we add comments, as cycling in Cambridge is often genuinely newsworthy. When sensible topics appear, it is everyone’s best interest that we are able to comment in favour of the cycling community. If we stand idly by without comment, balance will be even harder to achieve.

Martin Lucas-Smith