As the way journalists get around changes, so does the way we tell stories.
By David Rudin for the Ryerson Review of Journalism
In late December of last year, the Toronto Star posted a job listing for its summer reporting internship. Here, prospective candidates could learn that the publication was looking for “intelligent journalists with a strong work ethic, positive attitude, and passion for journalism who bring energy, ideas, and new perspectives to their work.” Those are foundational journalistic attributes. None of them, however, received the same emphasis as the Star’s final desired quality, which stood alone and was bolded: “A full, unrestricted Ontario driver’s licence is required.”
Canada does not have a formal licencing scheme for journalists. Consequently, a driver’s licence can often be the closest thing to a required document when seeking employment in the field. Whereas the finer points of reporting are discussed ad infinitum, the importance of driving, along with other sources of mobility, goes largely unmentioned. Like a journalist’s preferred brand of ballpoint pen, transportation isn’t expected to meaningfully affect stories. But is that really true? Can a reporter’s chosen mode of travel affect how they interpret the world?
The history of journalism is littered with intellectual traditions that emphasized the role of different methods of transportation. In his early journalistic work, Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens chronicled scenes in London that he experienced while on foot. This ethos became part of the flâneur tradition, which emphasized the perspective of someone moving slowly through a city and taking in different scenes. Newspapers — including the aforementioned Star — still have flâneur columnists, but they are not considered reporters in a traditional sense. Likewise, in architectural criticism, the “architectural promenade” approach reinforces the idea that the way one physically approaches a subject affects how it’s covered. In Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities, architecture critic Alexandra Lange notes that, at the start of her famous review of the Marine Midland Bank Building in New York City, Ada Louise Huxtable “stands on the sidewalk and points you east.” This conceit suggests that the story would be different if Huxtable simply drove up to the front door; her empathy is with the pedestrian.
After the automobile’s rise to prominence, however, the perspective of drivers started to inflect news coverage. In covering highway design for the Los Angeles Times in 1956, A. E. Hotchner laid out the risks as follows: “A long straight road, sunlight reflection off the dash, the purr of tires and the engine can all be hypnotizers. It is up to the individual to anticipate these dangers.” Implicit in this framing was the conceit that both the author and their readers drive. Similarly, the ride-along, in which journalists sit in the front seat of a cop car, is not only a chance to see the world as a law-enforcement agent but also a chance to report from the perspective of a motorist. In popular language, however, the “drive-by journalism” epithet is perhaps the biggest signifier of driving’s effect on journalism — a figurative expression of the literal reality that a reporter can now be here today and very much gone tomorrow.
Cars, and even some of what is considered drive-by journalism, are necessary concessions to the reality that journalists cannot be everywhere at once. This has not fully attenuated complaints that the Canadian news industry is disproportionately concerned with stories close to home — in Toronto, mainly. It is nevertheless worth considering how a complete reliance on public transit, bicycles, and walking might make geographic disparities more pronounced.
At the same time, the way a reporter experiences the world — even in a putatively objective story — affects the distribution of empathy in their coverage. The flâneur tradition was on to something in that regard. In cities, where streets and public spaces are often contested between users of different modes of transport, driving is not always an apolitical activity. Much as a reporter’s economic or cultural life experiences can influence their work, it’s fair to suspect that a cyclist will cover traffic incidents differently than a driver.
While many good-faith readers trust that reporters can overcome these differences in lived experience, cars and driving are an active front in America’s political culture wars. In the time preceding Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, American political commentator John Ekdahl managed to rile many of his peers with a seemingly simple question. “The top 3 best selling vehicles in America are pick-ups,” he tweeted. “Question to reporters: do you personally know someone that owns one?” A gaggle of media types took the bait, variously suggesting that pickup-owning acquaintances are a poor metric by which to measure the country’s journalistic bubble. To Sean Davis, co-founder of the conservative news site The Federalist, however, “all it took to reveal the durability of [the media] bubble was a simple question about pickup trucks.”
Questions about pickup trucks and other vehicles will likely become harder to avoid in the years ahead. Canada is by no means a society that has freed itself from the shackles of car ownership, but the combination of car-sharing startups and young Canadians expressing indifference toward driving nevertheless reflects the beginning of a cultural change. In 2012, researchers from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that every Canadian age group between 16 and 54 had experienced a decrease in the share of licensed drivers between 1999 and 2009. In the 20–24 cohort, that number was approaching 80 percent; for 25- to 34-year-olds, it fell from 92 percent to 87 percent. What happens, then, to the members of these groups that become journalists?
In the short term, one suspects that the Star will not struggle to find applicants with the requisite driving licenses. If the percentage of young Canadians interested in driving continues to decline, however, that line will stand out more by the year. Moreover, as driving continues to be fraught with cultural significance, aspiring journalists are damned if they drive and damned if they don’t. As with most objectivity norms, this problem demands a truce — a mutually agreed-upon re-evaluation of what affects objectivity. Many solutions to problems are now pitched as Uber-for-afield, but in this case the existence of Uber is a reminder of a longer-term problem. To the extent that a driver’s license is a prerequisite for journalism, neither profession nor transportation will ever be as neutral as some want them to be.
This story was originally published on the Ryerson Review of Journalism website and is republished here with the permission of the author.