Guest commentary

The critical press

Inflamatory coverage of mishap at a bicycle protest boosts paper's readership

By Josh Wilson
Posted April 16, 2007

A dramatic Chronicle photo.

SFGate.com, the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle, last week provided a fascinating look at how both initial newspaper coverage and Web 2.0 technologies can help shape perception of a story.

At issue is a confrontation between cyclists riding in San Francisco's monthly Critical Mass, and a mother from the suburbs and her family in a minivan who got caught behind the bike traffic. There was panic, there was a bicyclist hit (how hard is in question), and then someone broke the back window of her car.

The issue is particularly intriguing because there appears to have been bad behavior on both sides, and the style of the initial coverage appears to have been red meat for only the inflammatory aspects of the story.

As a result, SFGate had a banner day for traffic, but mostly, it seems, because its initial coverage served brilliantly as flame- and troll-bait in the Web 2.0 arena.

As the story played out and the coverage evolved, the issue got a lot more nuanced, raising a lot of questions about the incident and how it was covered.

It's obvious the incident touched a nerve over here. The Critical Mass community (of which I am a member) has been galvanized into a lot of important discussion of self-regulation. Amid all the outrage about bicyclists behaving badly, there is also renewed outrage about police dismissal of hit-and-run incidents against bicyclists. There are also the usual concerns about source and witness grandstanding, which both bicyclists and drivers involved in the incident have been accused of.

As an editor who used to work at SFGate, and who is also a bicyclist with personal interest in how the story is covered, the compelling question for me is:

How does a news outlet handle a story with hugely sensational (and also culturally and politically significant) elements in a volatile Web 2.0 environment? How do they harvest the abundant traffic of such a story (769 blog comments as of this writing!) and still do justice as a responsible news outlet to the complexity of the story?

Following is an overview of the media coverage over time. What do you think?

1) The Gate's Nwzchk blogger has a brief summary of the news-media coverage. There are some sharply differing perspectives on the story:

Critics on all sides when it comes to Critical Mass

2) The Chron's political reporters, Matier & Ross, led with the first roundup of the incident. They're columnists with lots of pith and POV, and their coverage reads in that spirit:

Minivan's rude introduction to Critical Smash

3) Their coverage ignited a huge flame war on the Gate's blog, most of it quite bilious:

Critical Mass -- out of control?

4) Matier & Ross's initial column brought lots of criticism from the left and pro-bike community, which SF Bay Guardian editor Steven Jones encapsulates in his blog:

Did Critical Mass really go crazy?

5) SFGate harvested mucho traffic (no pun intended) from their teaser blurbs on the front page yesterday, which were quite breathless ... "terrorized family" was the most common usage. (I wish I had thought to archive one of those blurbs, they were truly great examples of certain style of headline.) In the heat of the moment, when the window of their van was broken, I'm quite sure they were terrorized. Nevertheless, their front page today is much more sober:

Last Friday's confrontation in SF between Critical Mass
bicyclists and Redwood City driver Susan Ferrando -- with
daughters Shannon and Lauren -- that damaged her minivan,
has spurred has spurred another round of angry debate
about the rights of bicyclists and drivers.

6) The Chronicle noticed all the traffic to their blog, and sent some reporters to an unrelated mayoral press conference to press the issue with Gavin Newsom for their late-edition story on April 4:

Mayor vows 'a good look' at Critical Mass
Redwood City family's van damaged after being caught up in ride

7) The Chronicle's story on the 5th works a lot more detail and perspective on the incident, which appears to be much more nuanced than the original Matier & Ross column suggested:

Clash reignites road wars
Skirmish between driver, Critical Mass participants triggers another round of debate about monthly ride

8) By Friday the 6th, the Chronicle's reportage had acquired an even more aloof, distant and analytical perspective, as the complexity of the case revealed itself fully:

Two views of mass confusion

Friday's edition also included an strongly condemnatory editorial aimed at the ride as a whole -- and revealing, perhaps, why their coverage led with Matier & Ross's POV-rich column in the first place, rather than Friday's more nuanced look at the issue. The editorial also failed to note that the "flood of responses top an SFGate blog," numbering in excess of 750 comments, consisted mostly of a flame war between a few dozen habitual posters, rather than "plenty of residents and visitors."

Cool it, Critical Mass

What does all this say for not only citizen journalism, but also how professional news media makes use of their online communities?

Josh Wilson is editor of Newsdesk.org.