His colleagues offer other theories. Business editor Larry Ingrassia, Bryant’s boss, thinks the emotional complexity of the situation plays a role. “Even the culprits are victims,” he says. Consider the twenty-year-old, featured in the first story, who killed another driver while talking on his cell phone and now lives with the guilt. “You sympathize with that character,” Ingrassia says. “That’s somebody’s kid.”
Kramon, who has offered key input as the series has unfolded, has another take. “This story really makes people mad,” he says. “It is a story to react strongly to, because there is such an obvious solution.”
Indeed, the data reported in the stories point to the conclusion that distracted driving is, if anything, even more of a hazard than one might expect, and that the obvious solution would be to discourage it. The Times journalists who have worked on the series say, unsurprisingly, that it has made them more cognizant of their own behavior. (“I listen to a lot more sports radio,” says Richtel.) And they shared fears that a spouse or child might be injured in an accident caused by texting or talking behind the wheel. But as a group, they adhered to the standard journalistic claim that that their aim was to foster a debate, not push for a particular solution. “We didn’t have an agenda,” Richtel said repeatedly. “We’re not editorial writers,” said Bryant. “We don’t want to write prescriptions,” said Ingrassia. “Advocacy is for the edit page.”
And yet, some of the journalists’ other comments seem to acknowledge, if in a roundabout way, that they’d like to see results from the series. “I like to think that if you bring an issue up, and you raise it in the right way, people take it seriously and they start doing the right thing,” Ingrassia says. Adds Bryant: “You can debate a lot of things—I don’t think people can really debate how dangerous texting while driving is, or talking on the cell phone.” Kramon is most straightforward on this score. Wide acceptance of seat belts took decades, he notes, despite the evidence that they saved lives. “We hope these stories will inspire Americans to move faster against distracted driving.”
However the goals behind it are articulated, the series has apparently connected with an audience. It has become, in the process, almost self-perpetuating, as readers offer story ideas and institutions respond to the information the Times has publicized. “What has happened, and this is really a rush as a reporter, is that stories are starting to unfold in front of us,” Richtel says. “I feel a little bit swept up in it as well, in the respect that this story has taken on a life of its own.” This is the first time in his career he’s been in a situation like this, he says, and it’s prompted some reflection about the overall role of a journalist. “It’s humbling, because it really reinforces your desire to do right by your readership when you know people are playing such close attention…. Right now, I feel like I am as much in the center of a conversation as I’ve ever been, and I want to be responsible in that role.”
At the close of an interview recently, Richtel also offered some parting thoughts that suggested why this topic might have appealed to him in the first place. “A lot of the things people are feeling behind the wheel is the urgent demand to be connected all the time,” he said—a sensation not entirely unlike a modern reporter’s obligation to be always aware of, and responding to, the latest news. Whether behind the wheel or out with a notebook, there’s something to be said for taking time to digest information and focus on the task at hand.