Bridge collapses in the media


How did the media do in reporting on the 35W bridge collapse?

One week out, it looks like a mixed bag. I was encouraged to see that it didn’t take the media long to begin focusing on the issue of the context within which this disaster occurred. “Crumbling Infrastructure Leaves a Nation Terrorized,” said the St. Petersburg Times. “Bridge Tragedy Shows Needs in USA,” yelled USA Today. The LA Times chipped in with, “Our Infrastructure Needs Help.”

Opinion: Bridge collapses in the media

Good for the media. Accidents are accidents, after all, but it looks like this one had a lot to do with some bad political decisions made (or not made) over many years, and it’s a good thing for the media to call our attention to this pattern of neglect.

Still, although it’s a good thing to read these headlines now, the fact is that we could have read them years ago, before this needless tragedy occurred. For example, I wrote about the problem back in 2004 in my newsletter Nygaard Notes, in an article headlined, “Grading the U.S. Infrastructure: ‘A Discouraging D+ Overall.’” My source for that article (and a couple of subsequent ones) was something called the “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” put out every couple of years by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Each Report is accompanied by press conferences, interviews, and all the usual hoop-de-do that goes along with these things. That is, these reports (and others) are easy enough to find for anyone who cares. The nation’s mass media, however, are apparently not among those who care. Here are a few comments that explain why I say this:

The most recent “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” was released by the ASCE on March 9, 2005, and went almost unnoticed in the nation’s agenda-setting media. There were a few small stories in newspapers like the Grand Rapids Press, the Connecticut Post, and the Roanoke Times & World News. The Daily Reporter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin had it on the front page, and the Business Wire made it a top story, but they were small stories, and reached only a small audience of media junkies.

The earlier ASCE report, in 2001, got similar treatment. That report failed to make a single front page anywhere in the nation.

(Not) Questioning the American Lifestyle

Another failure of the media in the wake of the 35W collapse is the near-total failure to raise such issues as lifestyle, urban living, or sustainability. Plans are already being made to replace the recently-collapsed 8-lane bridge with a larger 10-lane bridge. I live about 12 blocks from the collapsed bridge (I was out for a run along the river and was sweating profusely about 500 yards downstream when the bridge went down). Many of the 140,000 cars that used the bridge every day, after all, drove through my neighborhood to get there. So, maybe I’m biased, but I’d like to hear a discussion of the wisdom of continuing to accommodate an ever-greater number of cars, an ever-larger volume of commuters, an ever-more-costly system of petroleum-based transit in my city. I live here. I breathe here.

The ASCE—hardly a radical environmental group—actually raises this point repeatedly. Here are some words from their 2001 report that I think make the point eloquently:

“Solutions to ease the increasing demands on our transportation system and improve highway conditions, capacity, and safety are multifaceted and don’t always mean simply building more roads and bridges. America must change its transportation behavior, increase transportation investment at all levels of government, and make use of the latest technology. Cities and communities should be better planned to reduce dependence on personal vehicles for errands and work commutes, and businesses must encourage more flexible schedules and telecommuting.”

Somehow, that part about “changing our transportation behavior” never seems to make it into news reports on the recent tragic, but predicted, catastrophe.

Kudos to the media for raising the issue of investing in our infrastructure. But the missed opportunity to raise the larger issue of the sustainability of that infrastructure must be considered a failure on the part of the media.

A more obvious and tangible failure was the failure of the Fourth Estate over many years to report the warnings about—essentially, the predictions of—the type of disaster that we have just witnessed. This failure points to a serious problem with the priorities of the publicly traded corporations that run our media, the corporations that appear to be more interested in serving their advertisers than in serving our communities.