The Power of the Media
I've been involved in various aspects of traffic safety publicity and community relations almost since I started my own p.r. shop 21 years ago. One of my first clients was the Greater New York Auto Dealers Association, which hired me to organize and promote a traffic safety symposium at the giant New York Auto Show.
The program was a success and the Auto Show just held its 20th annual World Traffic Safety Symposium. I spoke at the event on behalf of a current client in the traffic safety space -- The National Road Safety Foundation, a non-profit group that's been producing and distributing free driver education programs for more than 40 years.
At the close of the symposium, a special award was given to The New York Times for a series of in-depth articles on distracted driving. Three days later, the Pulitzer Prizes were announced and NY Times writer Matt Richtel won a Pulitzer for that same series, titled "Driven to Distraction."
When I thought about it, the Pulitzer Prize highlights the awesome power of the media to focus attention on important issues and bring about positive change.
Here's what happened as a result of the series in The New York Times...
* Most significantly, it caught the attention of United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who has made distracted driving the focus of his agency's efforts. Secretary LaHood calls it "a national epidemic" that kills some 6,000 people every year and injures half a million more.
* The Secretary convened last fall a Distracted Driving Summit, with some 200 leaders in traffic safety, government, and the auto and cellular industries. He laid out the problem and said, in no uncertain terms, this would be a priority for his department. At the close of the conference, President Obama announced a ban on in-car texting for all Federal employees. Four U.S. Senators attended and said they were pushing for anti texting-while-driving legislation in their home states and urging other states to follow.
* Iowa recently became the 21st state to ban texting for all drivers.
* More than 200 distracted driving bills were introduced in state legislatures last year, and the pace is picking up so far this year. NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is fueling the effort with financial incentives for states that take action.
* With the prodding and encouragement of the Dept. of Transportation, several safety and health groups have taken up the distracted driving challenge. This includes my client, The National Road Safety Foundation. At the time of the Distracted Driving Summit, we were about to begin a competition for teens, working with National Organizations for Youth Safety, inviting them to submit concepts for a public service spot aimed at young people and dealing with distracted driving. The Secretary of Transportation heard of it and immediately offered his agency's support. We've found a winner, produced the 30-second spot and we're holding a news conference on April 29 to introduce the PSA. Secretary LaHood is showing his support by participating and introducing the winning spot and the 16-year old girl who came up with the concept.This is the first time I can recall a traffic safety issue taking hold from the top down. With seat belts and drunk driving, the efforts began at the grass-roots level by families and friends of victims, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. After years of lobbying, the issues took hold at the state level and eventually got to the Federal level.
But the Distracted Driving Summit and all that has followed over the past 6 - 7 months has been a top-down effort, with the Federal government using its political and economic clout to make this happen.
The effort is continuing and is gaining momentum. Oprah Winfrey is lending her considerable clout with programs on the issue that she'll be airing later this month.
But remember that the real push began after the first stories appeared in The New York Times. Matt Richtel spent several months working on these stories, traveling throughout the nation to gather information. Since distracted driving had hardly been on the radar before this, there was not a lot of research he could tap into. The Times committed considerable resources to enable the series to come to fruition.
I wonder how much time and money a cable channel or an online publication would have spent on this issue. Track down every bit of dirt on Michael Jackson's doctor or Tiger Woods' playmates -- they'd find money for that. But for traffic safety?
This underlines the importance of and the need for quality investigative journalism that you find at our bigger newspapers.
If those papers disappear, I wonder which -- or more importantly, IF -- other media will take over that time-consuming and costly role.