Media has a responsibility to report accurately and impartially. It is clear that in many instances around the world, this is not being done with respect to dog bites or attacks. The next time you hear about a dog bite (and if you are a journalist, please read this to make sure you aren’t being biased without realizing it), review the media coverage and ask yourself the following questions:
- Has the dog been verified as a pit bull? Did the owner describe it as such, or even know its parentage? Was the breed description gleaned from an animal control officer that has access to information about the dog, or from an emotional witness who may have only had a glimpse of the dog?
- How much coverage did this incident get? It is important to remember that statistically, dog bites happen every day in most regions – not because dogs are vicious but because millions of dogs live in our midst. If even only 1% of the dogs in our communities bite, that is still a very large number of people affected. Serious bites requiring hospitalization happen several times per week, yet media coverage usually only happens on a few specific serious incidents each year – usually when the media can cite that it was a “pit bull.”
- Does this particular incident warrant the amount of coverage that it is getting? (Example: when is a dog bite “breaking news?” If there are no life-threatening injuries or fatalities – does it meet the criteria of breaking news? If a fight outside of a bar resulted in life-threatening injuries or a fatality, it would be breaking news. A fight outside of a bar where someone is hurt, but their life is not in jeopardy, wouldn’t generate any coverage.)
- Google a random large breed (German Shepherd, Lab, Mastiff) along with a keyword like “bite,” “attack,” or “maul.” Compare this article and the amount of publicity generated with a “pit bull” attack of the same magnitude. Also, remember that most attacks by other breeds don’t make the news at all or if they do, the breed is likely not identified.
- What is the exposure of the story? Is it on the front page? Is it national news? Given the number of dog bites (minor and serious), not to mention other things that kill Canadians every day (car accidents, drugs, alcohol, cancer), is the amount of media exposure reasonable? Animal attacks may seem more visceral and scary, but is a dog bite dramatic enough to warrant being on the front page or the lead story on the nightly news?
- What types of words are used to describe the bite or attack? (Are they sensational, such as “mauled,” “ripped,” or “tore” or are they neutral like “bite” or “injury?” Do they report the number of stitches required? And do you find a difference, depending on the breed?)
- Does the reporter add context, talking about the circumstances around the attack or the history of the dog and owner? Do they speak about the bylaws in the municipality and reasonable ways that this incident could have been prevented?
- Who is interviewed regarding the bite or attack? It’s reasonable to interview the victim and witnesses, but if context is needed, is there an effort being made to talk to experts? Credentialed trainers, animal behaviourists, doctors or animal control officers would be examples of people who would be able to thoughtfully comment on dog bites and why they happen. People on the street or those who head up activist groups (pro- or anti-BSL) are not.
- Is the focus on the injury and gore excessive in the media coverage?
HugABull routinely monitors media coverage in BC and compares reports aired in the news with facts gleaned later on. Some case studies are below: