The majority of journalists want to accurately report on any story that they cover, including those regarding dog bites or attacks. They are committed to a high standard of ethics and integrity, and they do their best to provide factual, accurate information to their viewers and readers. This goes for many of the citizen journalists, social media influencers and bloggers as well. However, reporters, bloggers and people on social media have to move quickly in this 24/7 news cycle and there often isn’t time to verify facts, there can be a rush to get any information out, and, unfortunately, there is pressure from some media outlets to pull people to their websites, their broadcasts and to sell newspapers. And using sensationalism and fear works.
After months of in-depth research and a review of media coverage of how journalists report on dog bites and attacks, along with some behind-the-scenes digging of why so much media coverage is clearly biased, a set of media guidelines has been produced in an effort to support journalists who are committed to accurately reporting on a story that involves a dog bite or attack.
Our Suggested Media Guidelines Are:
- Verify the breed of the dog. (If you don’t know the breed for certain, say “a dog bite/attack” – don’t speculate.) Given the difficulty in securing a reliable breed identification, as encountered in this American Veterinary Medical Association study, we would recommend neutral descriptors only (example: “large, black, short-haired dog”) unless this is one of the very few cases where a reliable breed identification can be obtained.
- The severity of the bite/attack should be what determines the “news value” of the incident, not the breed of the dog involved. (It shouldn’t be front-page news just because the breed involved is a pit bull. If you wouldn’t run the story if the dog involved wasn’t a pit bull, you shouldn’t be running the story at all.)
- Interview the experts – dog behaviour specialists, dog trainers, veterinarians and others who have credentials. Don’t just speak with advocates (on either side of BSL) who may have an agenda. Don’t use average people on the street who may be misinformed or may have had a bad experience with a specific breed.
- Use descriptive – but not sensational – words (“serious wound caused by a dog bite” vs. “vicious attack”).
- If you make an error on the breed of the dog, publish or broadcast a correction (make it right).
- Investigate the history of the dog and the owners. Too often, coverage on a dog attack turns into a conversation about breed and fails to look at the context of the specific dog involved and the owner’s responsibility or lack thereof. Explore whether any of the risk factors are identified by behaviour. Was a child involved? Was the dog in a situation where it was fearful or in pain? What is the background of the dog? Were the dog(s) and the person(s) in a confined space? Perhaps a better use of the power of the media is to use this as an opportunity to talk about safe interactions between people (especially children) and dogs and to help educate the community.A 2013 study by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that four or more of the following factors were present in fatal dog attacks:
- Dog was not familiar to victim
- Dog was not spayed or neutered (84% of cases)
- Victim was vulnerable or had diminished capacity (e.g., was a child, elderly or ill)
- Victim was alone
- Dog was not a family dog – lived outside or was tethered (76% of cases)
- Dog was mismanaged (not trained, roaming loose)
- History of abuse or neglect
- Gender of dog (more likely to be male)
- Dogs roaming in packs
- A bite or aggressive incident in the past
Other studies have identified the following risk factors:
- Put the incident and the story into context. That means requesting dog bite statistics from the municipality where the bite occurred, speaking to local animal control personnel or behaviour experts, and consulting peer-reviewed studies to see how this incident fits into the bigger issue of dog aggression in our communities.
- A “pit bull attack” doesn’t have to turn into a story about breed-specific legislation. This is a common narrative, but there is an opportunity to report on other important factors that have been correlated with attacks – dog interactions with children, the importance of leashing and proper containment, local and provincial bylaws and enforcement, the responsibility of the owner to provide the animal with proper care and training – and to manage the dog’s behaviour and movement, if it has shown any previous signs of aggression.