Blaming the Victim: The Shoddy Press Coverage of the Dali Destroying the Francis Scott Key Bridge

I’ve noticed a nasty trend in the way the press is covering the recent destruction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge when a freighter named the Dali crashed into it. The most recent example I’ve seen of this trend is this Politico story, titled “Outmoded bridge design likely contributed to catastrophic loss in Baltimore”. The lede continues to blame the victim this way:

The collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge Tuesday after a collision with a massive container ship could have been mitigated with simple “fenders” that have been standard issues on new bridges since the 1990s.

Outmoded bridge design likely contributed to catastrophic loss in Baltimore, Politico, March 27, 2024

The way the author writes this, you’d think the bridge jumped in front of the ship like a defender trying to draw a charge during a basketball game. Apparently, designers of the bridge in the 1970s were supposed to anticipate that freighters going in and out of that harbor would quadruple in size over the subsequent half century. Later on in the story, they quote an attorney in Florida who defended a freighter captain whose ship hit the Sunshine Skyway Bridge during a storm, resulting in the deaths of 35 people.

If you look at the Baltimore bridge pictures, you’ll see the piers are unprotected,” Yerrid said in an interview. “That occurred in 1980, our horrific accident. So what I’m saying is, they didn’t learn. And for 44 years–I’m not saying they should have rebuilt their whole bridge, but they certainly should have taken safety measures.”

Outmoded bridge design likely contributed to catastrophic loss in Baltimore, Politico, March 27, 2024

Nowhere in the entire Politico piece is there any accountability placed on the people responsible navigating the ship. Not a single question posed about the wisdom of a ship that size (which launched in late 2014) having just one propeller and rudder. This USA Today piece smartly questions the practice of not requiring tug escorts for such large ships. It even mentions the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, the oil tanker-caused ecological disaster that resulted in double-hulled construction being mandated for all such ships in the future.

Most of the radio coverage I’ve heard focuses far more on the collapse of the bridge than on the massive ship which caused it. But a bit of searching yielded this foreign press story, which talks not only about the Dali’s previous crash at the Port of Antwerp, but about previous sanctions from the Australian government against the owner of the ship, Grace Ocean.

Overall, the coverage of this disaster reminded me a lot of how survivors of Hurricane Katrina were called refugees in and by the press. The implication that these people didn’t belong here couldn’t have been more obvious. Nor was it a coincidence that the vast majority of those dead and displaced by the storm were poor and black. Social media has been predictably filled with derisive commentary from so-called conservatives about the black governor of the state, Wes Moore, not wearing a suit during a 3 am press conference responding to the disaster. They’ve called Brandon Scott a “DEI” mayor, ignoring the fact that he was elected by a majority of the citizens of Baltimore in 2020. Right-wing pundits have blamed everything from COVID to border policy for the bridge collapsing–nevermind the fact that any bridge hit by something the size and weight of a skyscraper was going to fall down. Nearly 20 years after Katrina, the sort of implicit bias we saw in mainstream news coverage of that disaster seems no less prevalent today.