On Monday, a woman in Saudia Arabia, where women are banned from driving, died in a car accident and was mistakenly identified as a famous activist. The event was a tragedy for those involved, but for news sites around the world it was a chance for cheap, inaccurate irony.
The story appears to have started with an Agence France Presse story that was published on Monday with a slightly over-sold headline "Saudi Female Driver Defies Ban, Has Fatal Accident." No names were given for the victims, but something happened as other news sites rewrote the story and suddenly it was reported that Manal al-Sharif, the head of a Saudi female driving campaign, had died. Considering the international headlines her campaign for women's right to drive merited, that would be a huge news story. Except for one problem: Manal al-Sharif is alive and was not involved in any car accident. She revealed the little detail to The Guardian on Wednesday.
But before and since, a story of cruel irony of a defiant female driver who died driving has been retold over and over. The Daily Mail (now claiming to be the world's largest news site) seems to be one of the earliest to report that al-Sharif had died. The National Review's Mark Steyn linked to their story, calling her a "brave pioneer," on Tuesday night. The current version of the Daily Mail story still has a huge picture of al-Sharif but the body of the story is technically accurate. But in the site's "News You're Talking About" sidebar (at right) the Mail is still reporting that al-Sharif is dead.
But since no woman can legally drive in Saudi Arabia, the woman who died must have been an activist, right? No. According to the The Guardian and briefly noted in the original AFP report, the woman who died was from a remote bedouin community in a region named Ha'el where the Saudi ban on women drivers goes unenforced. "Women regularly drove there but police left them alone because the bedouin were detached from mainstream Saudi society," The Guardian wrote. Also, as the AFP's original story reported, while there was a woman behind the wheel at the time of the accident, the woman who died was a passenger. So the Daily Mail's current headline "Female Driver Who Defied Saudi Motoring Ban Dies in Fatal Road Accident" is inaccurate.
So, case closed? Move on to the next story? Not quite. News-hungry aggregators weren't going to let an inconvenient truth get in the way of a good story. Keep the lede, add facts later! "In an ironical incident, a woman who had actively protested the driving ban on female motorists in Saudi Arabia has died in a car crash," wrote the International Business Times. "Car Crash Kills Saudi Woman Who Broke the Law," read a Sky News headline. The Independent and The Telegraph ran similar stories. The Huffington Post didn't get to the story until well after The Guardian set things straight, but their opening sentence reads: "A woman in Saudi Arabia has died in a road accident after defying the country's ban on driving," and links to The Daily Mail and the International Business Times. The part of the earlier mistaken identity is nowhere in the story. Their video unit even made a quickie news report out of the story.
As the only nation in the world where women cannot drive and with a miserable record on women's rights in general, Saudi Arabia presents a ripe target for news sites looking to convert moral outrage into precious clicks. But sometimes a car accident is just a car accident. Based on figures from the World Health Organization, approximately 900 women are killed in car accidents every day. Few are turned into clickbait.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.