We have great respect for the media’s role in our communities and society as a whole. And journalists who work to make sure the facts are correct and who don’t sensationalize, embellish or speculate are of huge value in providing news and information so that we can each make informed decisions.
In the context of this website, which aims to address misconceptions about breed-specific legislation (BSL), we have included a section on the media’s role, relative to BSL. The way that some journalists and media outlets cover dog bites and attacks continues to help perpetuate the myth of some breeds as being inherently more dangerous. More specifically, at this time, this type of coverage surrounds “pit bull” breeds.
There is little to no formal data or research around media bias regarding the reporting of dog bites. Unsurprisingly, the majority of media outlets are not keen to turn a critical eye on the accuracy or fairness of their own coverage. However, if you compare media coverage to published data, a pattern of poorly researched, speculative or sensationalized coverage by a large number of influential media outlets is clear.
Below are a few examples of reporters or organizations that have investigated the issue over the years.
- The National Canine Research Council analyzed a set of reports in 2010 that showed that “pit bull breeds” received a great deal more attention than other breeds in media reports about dog bites. You can read their news release here.
- A reporter at The Denver Post reviewed that publication and identified the same pattern – and, to the journalist’s and the Post’s credit, they wrote about it. You can read about it here.
- The San Francisco Chronicle’s sister website, SFGate.com, published an interesting article about this subject.
- CBC did an interesting broadcast piece on media’s bias regarding “pit bull breeds” as well.
- A 2013 study by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that in American dog bite fatalities, a reliable breed identification was only available in 18% of cases. When these attacks were reported by the media, the breed identification differed from other sources 20-40% of the time.
- The Pit Bull Placebo is an excellent resource that covers media bias and the historical context of dangerous breeds. It’s available as a free download here.
The Problem with Media Bias
The challenge that is now being recognized and acknowledged worldwide is that a bite by a dog identified (and not always correctly) as a “pit bull” generates substantially more media attention and coverage than it would if the dog were a different breed – one that is not perceived as “dangerous.” This means that many people only hear about dog bites that involve a “pit bull” breed (even if the identification is wrong) because other breeds are not usually identified in the media report or the incident does not generate coverage.
Additionally, how the incident is described in the media is often much more dramatic and sensational if the dog involved is thought to be a pit bull.
Unfortunately, this type of irresponsible, inaccurate and sensationalized media coverage influences people into believing the myth of “vicious breeds.” It creates a false sense of security, causing people to believe that other non-targeted breeds of dogs around them are “safe.” People end up blaming the breed rather than looking at known, albeit complex, risk factors that cause aggression in pet animals. This leads people and politicians with good intentions to work towards putting ineffective (and unfair) solutions like breed-specific legislation in place. In fact, this type of approach erects barriers for the responsible ownership of these breeds and, in turn, attracts “undesirable” owners (who might use the dogs for fighting, backyard or illegal breeding, or other nefarious purposes). This creates a vicious cycle that ends up giving an entire breed a negative reputation – and putting them at grave risk.