Tragedy struck this Sunday in Wanzhou, a district of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing. Shortly after 10 a.m., a city bus carrying 14 passengers ended up in the wrong lane while crossing a bridge. After colliding with a car going the other way, it smashed through the bridge’s railing before plummeting into the Yangtze River.
But that was not how events were initially reported.
Early reports instead laid the blame for the crash on the driver of the car, not the bus. Shortly after the incident, Chongqing Youth Daily — a local newspaper — reported: “According to what we’ve heard, the accident was caused by a red private car driven by a female driver going against the flow of traffic.”
Not long after, The Beijing News — one of China’s leading news outlets — reported the same. It added a source, but kept the sexist undertones intact: “At about 12 o’clock, one of our journalists heard from the Wanzhou Emergency Office that before falling into the river, the bus had collided with a car, because a female-driven sedan had been driving in the wrong lane.”
Throughout the day, liveblogs and livestreams rushed to provide readers with updates on the incident. Between posts about bodies being pulled out of the water, they found time to report that the female driver in question had already been taken into custody.
So it went, until late afternoon, when the Wanzhou police issued a statement that completely exonerated the female driver of the sedan: “This morning, a bus suddenly crossed the median and, after hitting a car that was driving normally, careened up the side of the road, broke through the railing, and plunged into the river.” Unlike earlier media reports, the official update made no mention of the sedan-driver’s gender.
In the wake of the police’s announcement, both Chongqing Youth Daily and The Beijing News’ reports were quickly taken down. But by then, it was too late: The narrative had already been established. Videos taken in the immediate aftermath of the accident quickly went viral on Chinese social media. They purported to show the woman in question, dazed, sitting next to her car. Many netizens paid special attention to the fact that she was wearing high heels, a commonly cited reason in China for women’s supposedly inferior driving.
Chinese media organizations have extensive content-sharing agreements, meaning that reports tend to circulate rapidly across apps, websites, and social media accounts of news outlets around the country. The speed at which certain stories are reposted leaves little time for vetting, and even international media can wind up posting incorrect information. Reuters’ report on the incident, for example — which cited Chinese state television — echoed the claim that the accident was the fault of “a private car that was driving against the flow of traffic,” though it made no note of the driver's gender.
Meanwhile, in comment sections, misogynistic posters were out for blood. “Death by firing squad: There is no other way,” was one reader’s response. Another chimed in: “Female drivers don’t just have bad driving techniques; what’s worse is that they have bad driving ethics.” Both were among the most upvoted comments on a since-deleted article that cited the female driver’s supposed culpability.
Now, perhaps this was all an innocent mistake: The crash had turned the woman’s car around, so those first on the scene may have made the incorrect, but understandable, assumption that she had been driving against the flow of traffic at the time of the crash. But it’s hardly the first time Chinese media have highlighted a driver’s gender when they believed a woman was at fault for an accident. An examination of Chinese media reports reveals an implicit bias against female drivers, with outlets always willing to jump at the chance to blame them for accidents.
However, the data shows that stereotypes about female drivers are — Surprise! — groundless. Just last year, police in the eastern city of Hangzhou published a report declaring that, even when taking into account the fact that women drive less than men, they are still better drivers. Yet according to an August report from a data-centric new outlet run by a Wuhan University researcher, even though men were responsible for 4.6 times more traffic incidents, news reports about accidents caused by women were 3.8 times more common in Chinese publications than articles about accidents caused by men.
This is not exactly a new development, either. Chinese commentators have been calling for an end to media bias against female drivers for years. Yet even officials seem to have bought into the female-driver narrative: Last year, a driving handbook mailed to Shanghai residents by the city’s government included an entire chapter telling women not drive with long hair or put on high heels if they planned to get behind the wheel. There was no equivalent chapter for men. And one of the sources for the initial version of the Chongqing accident was a government official.
One reason for the media’s apparent fixation on female drivers is related to how the Chinese language works. According to linguist David Moser, written Chinese — like many languages — displays a kind of “covert sexism” that uses non-gender-specific characters for men, but explicitly female characters for women. Similarly, men who cause traffic accidents are typically referred to as simply “drivers” in headlines, while women, according to the Wuhan researchers, are far more likely to have their gender explicitly noted in headlines.
A Google search highlights this discrepancy: A search for the Chinese term for “female driver” returns millions more hits than a comparable search for “male driver” — and a quick browse through the results suggests that this latter term is generally only used when there is a need to distinguish between them and a female driver or passenger.
All media outlets know that prejudice-affirming headlines get clicks. Caught between restrictions on what they can report and a need to earn money in China’s cutthroat media landscape, it’s perhaps not surprising that Chinese media would show a weakness for lurid details or a tendency to rush to judgement when it comes to incidents like the Chongqing bus crash.
If this latest tragedy has a silver lining, it’s that it seems to have awakened many readers to problems with the way Chinese media reports on accidents. On social media, some people even apologized for having cast blame on the wrong person.
On Monday, The Beijing News, which had originally cited the Wanzhou Emergency Office as saying the woman was responsible, published a thoughtful commentary on the incident. After police shifted suspicion onto the bus driver, there was no equivalent condemnation of male drivers. “That male drivers were not then subsequently put on public trial showcases the problem perfectly,” the editorial stated.
Other outlets were less reflective. After the female driver was exonerated, many headlines took the reversal of the narrative as just another chance to push clickbait, writing headlines that were a variation of: “A Twist! It Wasn’t the Woman’s Fault!”
In China’s challenging media environment, it can be difficult for outlets to stand out. But they should remember that meaningful reporting — however difficult — relies on holding people accountable or telling untold stories, not just perpetuating tired stereotypes or playing to a crowd. It’s a shame that it’s taken a woman being wrongfully accused of killing 15 people for this lesson to hit home.
Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O’Donnell
(Header image: Chen Ronghui/Sixth Tone)