It’s time for media to examine its own reporting of crime after slanted coverage of a tragic incident encouraged racist vitriol from readers, writes Mad Chapman.
The man driving a Burger Fuel car that ran over two pedestrians at the Avondale Santa parade in November has been charged with two counts of reckless driving causing injury. The man was driving a classic car, in Burger Fuel branding, as part of the parade when it rolled into members of a brass band. The two pedestrians received moderate to serious injuries and were taken to hospital to be assessed.
The charges are the latest development in a major news story, except the focus of story at the time was never about reckless driving causing injury. Instead it closes yet another chapter of reckless reporting causing serious harm to communities.
In November as the event unfolded, media reports of the incident quickly turned from “car ploughs into crowd” to “children pulled from car and assaulted”. Googling the Avondale Santa parade presents a swathe of assault-related headlines.
“Children assaulted after car collides with two people at Santa Parade” – Stuff
“Children pulled from car, assaulted after Avondale Xmas Parade crash” – One News
“Avondale Santa parade: People inside BurgerFuel car assaulted while still seated after crash into band” – NZ Herald
“‘Please do not take matters into your own hands’ – five injured at Avondale Santa parade” – RNZ
“Assault at Santa parade” – Sunday Star Times
That image – of children being violently assaulted by a crowd of angry adults – is shocking. It drew readers in and drew out some of the worst and sadly unsurprising comments about the residents of Avondale. I’m sure you can imagine what they were but here’s a sample from a very cursory look:
“It appears to have been an accident, but it also looks like many in that crowd would also be predisposed to having a bit of a ‘stoush'”
“Unusual for coloured folk to act in this way”
“Those that assaulted will hopefully be charge and no cultural report”
“Too many ferals in that area, shouldn’t have these sort of family events there.”
Despite a number of witnesses at the time (including an off-duty reporter from the Herald!) posting on social media that there was a lot of panic and distress after the incident, and a lot of anger due to the drivers of the Burger Fuel cars revving and doing burnouts earlier in the parade, but certainly no violent assault, the framing and focus remained. Instead, the immediate reports were presented as: car malfunctions and rolls slowly into two people at parade, angry mob pull driver and children out of car and assault them. Eventually the reports of “moderate” injuries for those in the car became “mild” injuries, became “were assessed for injuries” but it didn’t make any difference. The racist vitriol was already in full swing.
Today’s update from the police paints a very different picture.
“As a result of our investigation, we have charged a 45-year-old man with two counts of careless driving causing injury,” said Auckland City West Area Commander, Inspector Alisse Robertson, in a statement to The Spinoff. The man is due to appear in court in March.
But what about the apparent mechanical malfunction? It was the police who originally told media that the cause of the crash was likely a mechanical malfunction and therefore an accident. Undoubtedly, that statement heavily influenced the framing of the coverage too. Driver assaulted after unavoidable accident. I asked for comment on why that statement was given to media before any examination of the car had been undertaken and was told the initial statement said “it appears” and that information can change throughout an investigation. In my opinion, that feels like a time when police shouldn’t be making public observational guesses, especially when there’s such intense interest in the cause of the incident.
And the reported assaults? “Despite extensive enquiries for CCTV, video footage or independent witnesses, we have not been able to corroborate these reports,” Robertson said. “As such, Police have concluded our enquiries into this incident and we have advised all parties concerned.”
This will come as no surprise to the community of Avondale. At the time of the incident, chair of the Avondale Business Association, Marcus Amosa, called on Burger Fuel to issue an apology to the victims of the crash and to take responsibility for the incident rather than simply blaming “a mechanical fault”. He referenced “skid marks” and “unnecessary revving” earlier in the parade that concerned members of the public. To those at the parade and those in the community, it was clear that this was a preventable incident, but to the rest of the country reading the vast news coverage, it was yet another case of Avondale residents being violent and dangerous after an innocent accident.
Covering breaking news events isn’t easy and often early reports can change as new information comes in. But I can’t help but think that the angle of the Avondale Santa parade story changed a little too easily to become a story of anger and violence in an oft-maligned suburb instead of fear and concern after a terrifying ordeal.
One of those angles gets a lot more readers, even if it’s not accurate and only serves to further harm a community that’s already hurting.