Driving the Conversation

NYT series examines texting, talking behind the wheel

The New York Times has published a number of ambitious series this year, on topics ranging from the financial crisis fallout to the struggle to defeat cancer to settlers in the West Bank. But the series that’s attracted more attention than any other, according to Glenn Kramon, the paper’s assistant managing editor for enterprise? A group of stories on the dangers of using your wireless device while driving, chiefly written by technology reporter Matt Richtel and collected here (with related coverage here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

For readers who turn to the Times first for political coverage, the choice of subject might be slightly surprising. But reading through the stories is, journalistically, kind of thrilling: the perspective shifts from the driver’s seat to the passenger’s to the back seat of a cab, and to the halls of Capitol Hill and the cubicles of some obscure bureaucracy. And the response, measured in a variety of ways, has been impressive: thousands of reader comments, strong Web traffic, a spike in media coverage of the issue, personal letters attesting to changed behavior, even a New Yorker cartoon.

Perhaps the greatest testament to stories’ impact, though, is the way that the same characters and institutions keep popping up, responding to the events, and the dialogue, that the series has set in motion. Here is the Transportation Department, last seen withholding data, arranging a summit on the issue. Here is the Governors Highway Safety Association, abandoning its studied neutrality to call for a texting ban. Here is Congress proposing federal action, and Ford becoming the first major automaker to join the chorus. And here is the American Driver, previously so sure that everyone else on the road was the real hazard, admitting that, yes, he is part of the problem. Two months after the first installment in the series appeared, the headline it carried—“Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks”—seems somewhat less appropriate.

So how did the line of reporting come about, and why has it resonated—with both readers and institutions—the way it has? The series has its roots, explains deputy business editor Adam Bryant, in the same place a lot of journalism does—with everyday observation and “a good dumb question.” In this case, the observation was that a lot of computing power, in various forms, was being infused into the driver’s seat. And the question was, basically: what’s going on here? And what does it mean?

The paper’s first stab at an answer appeared in a front-page story in February 2008 that noted automakers’ plans to woo customers with electronic gadgetry, and the concern the trend was causing among safety advocates. Still, it seemed there was more to be said. Kramon—whose own observation and question had spurred the NYT’s earlier reporting on the dangers of SUVs, and who had also taken an interest in distracted driving—“pounced on that [initial] story,” Bryant says, and suggested other angles to pursue.

In Bryant and Richtel, the paper had a team that was eager to see were they led. Over the years, the two of them have “spent a lot of time having blue-sky discussions about the role of technology in society,” says Bryant; they share a curiosity about what Richtel calls “the addictive properties of technology” and its impact on everyday life. (Bryant once penned a jaundiced letter to his Blackberry for the NYT’s “Week in Review” section.) To explore what that phenomenon meant for drivers, Richtel says, he “worked in a reporting cave for four months,” and found plenty of data showing just how unsafe talking and texting behind the wheel can be. But he also hit on another question: Even if the general public didn’t know the details of the research, the dangers seemed apparent. Tragic, highly-publicized accidents had increased the salience of the issue. People were worried about the hazards created by other drivers who wouldn’t put their phones away. And yet all indications were that the behaviors were, if anything, increasing. Why was that?

This “disconnect” between information and behavior became one of the subjects of Richtel’s first story, and it may have provided a frame through which readers could relate the news to their own experience. But that’s only one explanation for its resonance. Richtel—who insists that the Times’s influence on this issue should not be overstated—attributes it, in part, to good timing. “I think we happened to give voice to something that’s been tickling people’s brains,” he says. “I think we were ahead of the curve by about six millimeters.”

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.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.