How not to write about the Bruce Jenner car accident

An uninjured celebrity trumps a tragedy

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 9, 2015 3:23PM (EST)

Bruce Jenner            (AP/Mark Von Holden)
Bruce Jenner (AP/Mark Von Holden)

Her name was Kim Howe. She was 69 and she was from Calabasas. She died in a car accident on the Pacific Coast Highway on Saturday. Oh, and secondarily, Bruce Jenner is okay. Local deputies say that on Saturday, two cars, including Howe's white Lexus, "abruptly" stopped in front of Jenner's vehicle, and that skid marks indicate Jenner tried to stop. He rear-ended the Lexus, pushing it into oncoming traffic, where it was struck by a Hummer H2.

Olympic champion and reality star Jenner has, undoubtedly, been having a particularly headline grabbing time lately, even before Saturday's multiple vehicle crash. That a fatal accident involving a person who is currently having a moment of profound public fascination would be news not surprising. It's not surprising, either, that so much of the coverage over the past few days has been devoted to answering three specific and blame-centric questions. First, was Jenner texting immediately prior to the accident? His publicist says, "The evidence will show that Bruce was not," but sheriff's officials say investigators will likely take a look at the phone records of all the drivers involved to determine if distraction was a factor. Second, was Jenner under the influence? Sergeant Philip Brooks of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department says that Jenner "passed a field sobriety test and took a blood-alcohol test," the results of which are not yet available. And finally, of course, were the paparazzi involved? Brooks told reporters Saturday that Jenner "wasn't trying to evade" anyone and that paparazzi "are not considered to be a factor in the collision at all" -- though in the aftermath, officials say the scene quickly became "a nightmare" of onlookers and photographers.

What's screwed up in the coverage of the accident isn't the focus on the mystery of what caused it. It's the way the news has been rolled out to reassuringly announce that the most important aspect of the story is that Jenner is safe. Take, for example, how the Associated Press headline announced that "Bruce Jenner Unhurt In Fatal Car Crash" and went to report, "There's no indication Bruce Jenner was being chased by paparazzi who were nearby when the SUV he was driving became involved in a four-vehicle crash that killed a woman, authorities said Saturday. The Kardashian family patriarch and Olympic gold medalist wasn't hurt, but seven people were taken to the hospital for evaluation after the crash." Here's what you get in those first two sentences: No paparazzi involved. Also, someone died. Jenner unhurt. Also, seven people taken to the hospital. The Guardian similarly ran the headline that "Olympian Bruce Jenner unhurt in car crash that kills one." Just take a moment to let that phrase sink in a bit. If the most important piece of information you're communicating is that Bruce Jenner isn't injured, please rethink your priorities.

Headline writers and people putting together weekend wire stories: you don't actually have say it that way. Yes, Jenner is the big name and Jenner's involvement is what makes a highway fatality a big news story. But the Boston Globe did just fine with the headline "Bruce Jenner involved in fatal Malibu crash." A local FOX affiliate said it accurately and less offensively with "Bruce Jenner involved in car crash, one person dead." And CNN, committing a little journalism, declared, "1 dead in car crash involving Bruce Jenner." That's how you do it. Because otherwise, you're announcing that a celebrity's well-being is more important than another person's death. And the woman who died on that stretch of road on Saturday may not have been famous, but she deserves better than that.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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