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Special Report: Does trucking get a rough ride from the media?

OTTAWA, Ont. - When people get involved in trucking, all too often it's as a job of last resort.And in the eyes of most industry followers, the biggest reason this situation exists is because of the n...


OTTAWA, Ont. – When people get involved in trucking, all too often it’s as a job of last resort.

And in the eyes of most industry followers, the biggest reason this situation exists is because of the negative image trucking has been tarred with over the years.

It’s not unusual for the press to be unkind to truckers. Journalists drive cars. And like most motorists, they’re intimidated by a tall set of headlights in the rearview. They don’t understand why truckers drive the way they do. So it’s not surprising that many stories about the trucking industry are often slanted before they even hit the printing press.

But it is only fair to expect at least an attempt at balance, especially from the journal of record in the national capital region, when possible. Last summer, The Ottawa Citizen ran a 12-part series, “Asleep at the Wheel,” which purported to throw some light on problems in the trucking industry.

It should have been great journalism. In the name of authenticity, the paper dispatched two of its reporters, Gary Dimmock and Zev Singer, to ride along with the big rigs and get the trucker’s eye-view. The editorial board gave the spread lots of room – upwards of 25,000 words (to give you some perspective, this story is one of the longer ones in this issue and it’s a little longer than 1,350) – so there was ample space to delve into complex issues.

To an extent, “Asleep at the Wheel” does contain some good safety information. But the compilation is puffy and too-often sensationalist in tone. More seriously, some of the articles are riddled with journalistic holes and half-truths.

Speaking as both a professional driver and scribe, the series should never have been on the road in the first place. But then again, I don’t push the red editor’s pencil at The Citizen.

“Road safety is an important issue,” says Bob Rupert, journalism professor at Carleton University. “But investigative reporting must conform with the highest ethical and professional standards. The Citizen, in this series, didn’t do that.”

Rupert was hired by the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) to examine “Asleep at the Wheel” both ethically and for accuracy. “The stories are thin,” he says. “The writers found the story they wanted to find, that trucking is getting more dangerous. But all the facts indicate trucking is getting safer, not worse.”

In a 25-page report to the CTA, Rupert cites omissions and suppositions based on untruths as some of the failings.

“I didn’t find problems with all the stories, but I found a pattern – misrepresentation of facts, lack of balance and fairness. If there were facts that didn’t support the theme, they were pretty well buried,” he slams.

Massimo Bergimini, vice-president of media relations with the CTA, was livid with The Citizen’s representations.

“I made notes and came up with about six pages of errors. They even made mistakes in the retractions they printed,” he says.

But Citizen editor Scott Anderson feels justified in running the articles.

“Most truck drivers are safe. But this story was about the problems in the trucking industry. It wasn’t a balanced portrayal of the good and bad. We wanted people who drive along the highway to know what was driving along beside them,” he says. “I’m glad trucking has gotten safer, but that’s not what we found. It’s a horrible lifestyle in many regards, trying to make a decent living without running too hard. I think the public is more sympathetic towards truck drivers because of the series.”

However, it’s hard to find a trucker from the Ottawa Valley who wasn’t offended by “Asleep at the Wheel.”

Garry Valiquette, a Nepean-area driver and former separate school principal, thinks truckers were slighted.

“In public, it’s the driver that bears the brunt of negative publicity. The Ottawa Citizen painted all drivers with the same brush.”

Bob McNichol, a driver for Highland Transport from Perth, Ont., has similar sentiments.

“It was total spin,” he says. “The fact is that the MTO comes in and audits our books. They go through everything. Anyone doing anything outrageous is going to get caught.”

Frightening the reader is a popular motif in trucking stories.

“For the past few decades, trucks have begun to scare people,” writes Gilles Gagne in his Oct. 28 commentary column for The Spec, an English-language weekly out of New Carlisle, Que.

After drawing an association between trucks and terror, Gagne calls statistics from a recent truck safety blitz in the region astounding. Of the 254 infractions, 13 per cent were Hours-of-Service problems, while six per cent were overweight (actually, this sounds kind of normal – probably one in 10 truckers doesn’t have a caught up log book, and maybe one in 20 rigs, operating at maximum efficiency is overweight on one axle or another).

“This is scary,” Gagne repeats.

Citing two examples of road carnage (one a horrible bus tragedy in Charlevoix County in 1997 that took 44 lives, and another fatality involving a tanker truck full of asphalt in 1999), Gagne finally gets around to wondering why the public doesn’t demand a national transportation policy that is more railway-oriented. “Are we stupid?” he asks.

If this sounds like the CRASH rhetoric (the anti-truck interest group bankrolled by railway interests), you might be right. Gagne moves quickly from dreading big trucks to waving a flag for the railroads, exactly the CRASH party line. The fact is CRASH is a very good media player, in many ways miles ahead of its transport sector counterparts.

Here’s a case in point. While looking for “dangerous truck” stories on the Internet, I came across Straightgoods.com. This is an excellent alternative news server published by Ish Theilheimer in Killaloe, Ont. (You might remember the site recently had a freelance reporter kidnapped and subsequently released in Afghanistan).

Two truck stories are posted on the Web site. The first is a verbatim press release from the Canadian Automobile Association, dated July 20 and titled “Big Trucks Less Safe than Trucking Industry Claims.” Nothing surprising here. This is typical CAA fare: four wheels, good – 18, bad.

But the second article, “CRASH ALERT, Will Dangerous Trucks be Unleashed on Canada’s Highways?” is a bit of a surprise.

The article exhorts readers to voice their opposition to multiple trailers (yet another issue that fascinates CRASH).

“So, what’s up, Ish?” I ask Theilheimer by email. “Straightgoods calls itself a watchdog for Canadian citizens and consumers, why don’t you mention CRASH is a railway-sponsored lobby group? Why the two slanted articles against trucking? Is Straightgoods anti-truck?”

The reply comes within an hour (it’s 3:00a.m.), “I call many truckers my friends and I’m not anti-truck. I’m anti-dead trucker,” writes Theilheimer.

“I am definitely concerned about regs allowing excessive work hours for truckers. CRASH doesn’t bother me. I like railroads, too. I’d welcome submissions from you on truck-related subjects. We encourage debate at SG. Please enter it!”

There you have it. Over-the-road transport isn’t getting its story out and CRASH is finding the ears of the editors.

According to the Straightgoods article, the pro-rail group has contact numbers in 10 provinces and is organizing “citizens” to make presentations at public hearings.

The trucking lobby, meanwhile, has historically had trouble getting out of first gear, particularly on the O/O side of things.


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