Tuesday, July 08, 2014

TIME's 'Problem' piece: What a media giant's fumble can teach us about dog bites and an industry in decline

The number of dog bite injuries spikes in summer months, so to help curb the tide, news sites, trainers, advocacy groups and humane orgs roll out a perennial offering of bite prevention info as early as May. The efforts to educate seem to be helping: Reports from public health agencies around the US tell us that the number of bite injuries reported has declined significantly, even as the dog population has risen by millions during the time period bites have been studied. (Fewer bites.)

Right: Graphic & Info Huffington Post & Sophia Yin

What happens though when you take the same worthy topic of dog bite prevention, hand it to a life style writer on a very tight deadline, give the mike to two former bite victims with a whopping vendetta against pit bulls, omit science-based data and add the odor of a messy hoax -- one that falsified claims and exploited a child victim’s very real injuries for quick cash. What do you have?

A messy, tabloid-esque piece for Internet rubber neckers?

Yes. Except in the case I’ve just outlined, the bomb that dropped came with TIME Magazine’s name on it. Their train wreck of an article – 'The Problem with Pit Bulls' -- has already been chewed on, spit out and discarded by educated minds and it’s old news at this point, but it will live on in Internet annals of history as one of TIME’s and Time writer Charlotte Alter’s biggest blunders. It’s so painfully bad, it seems to mock the nine 'Principles of Journalism.'

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context... This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.

In her piece, Alter trumpeted a bold, unproven assumption - “pit bulls are bred to be violent” - and then failed to back her claim up with any credible sources or science-based data. Assigning dog bites to breed types is passé, and journalists who go there can expect a loud scolding from all corners – hobbyists and professionals alike. Loud, because the voices behind the outrage come from an impressively large group of people.

Pit Bulls: Top five most popular 'breeds'

Dogs described as pit bulls top out as one of the five most popular breeds in America according to mega-chain Bansfield Veterinary clinic's data. So when you take a cheap shot at America’s pets, you are assaulting a significant segment of the population who owns and cares for dogs, and that’s never going to go over well.

Why did Alter, a Harvard graduate whose father (Johnathan Alter) is a career journalist, screw this up so badly? I want to be kind. I don’t believe Charlotte set out to bring harm to my dog or yours with her slanderous and disproven allegation. Bottom line: Her employer is in trouble, and she needed to meet a whirlwind deadline with an emotionally charged topic that would suck web traffic straight to her edgy rant.

Web traffic = Job security 

TIME is suffering from “an economic decline that reduced its revenues by 34% and cut its operating profit by 59%." (Link) In 2013, that bad news resulted in massive layoffs for TIME writers and staffers.

Reporters are keenly aware of hot trending topics. They have to be: maintaining an edge in the media industry has become a survivalist’s game.  In the week leading to Alter’s piece, the lion’s share of Internet traffic swarmed to a sad and ultimately bizarre story in Mississippi:  After a child was bit up by her grandfather’s dogs (reported to be pit bulls), her family promoted a tale of her being booted from a KFC when squeamish patrons balked at her scars. The alleged injustice made quick headlines and spread like wildfire, pulling a quick $135K in to her family’s online fundraiser. Just days before the whole KFC slam was exposed as a hoax, Charlotte Alter took the bait and jumped into the fray by condemning blocky headed dogs as the ultimate villain.

In a Hot Hurry

Alter was aiming to strike while the KFC story was still going viral and emotions were hot. Her email to me was the first tip off:

URGENT. I’m writing a piece on whether or not pit bulls are dangerous for Time.com, and I'd like to get a comment from you and your organization. I am on a very tight deadline.

I hadn’t had my coffee yet but even so, it seemed clear from Alter’s tone that her story was already written. There was no time for constructive discussion or careful research; BADRAP’s views were needed to juxtapose quotes that had likely already been typed into place. Our job was to spit out words that would fill in the blanks on the tired “Dangerous? Not dangerous?” debate.

I wasn't impressed with the squeeze and decided not to play. Interestingly, none of the other larger animal welfare orgs wanted to play either.

Undaunted by the lack of response from dog experts and perhaps bolstered by mounting public support of the child victim, Alter went ahead and submitted one of the most poorly researched critiques of ‘pit bulls’ to ever to grace an online news site.

3. (Principles of Journalism) Its essence is a discipline of verification
Journalists rely on a professional discipline for verifying information….Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment. 

Newspaper Clippings are Not Science

Alter was unable to secure credible experts to support her allegation that pit bulls were “bred to be violent,” so based her piece on the opinion of two former dog bite victims, both of whom have been widely disregarded by animal welfare professionals for their vendetta driven stance on ‘pit bulls,’ in addition to their sole reliance on newspaper clippings as the basis of their claims. She also quoted animals rights group PETA, who has a long and committed history of embracing breed specific laws and lobbying animal shelters to bar pit bulls from adoption programs, regardless of their personalities. (Link)

Her search for answers neglected an entire body of expert opinion and contemporary research from the major animal welfare organizations. (Link) Most of these orgs deal with dogs on a daily basis and all staunchly oppose breed specific legislation as a cure-all for bites.

She failed to present any peer-reviewed evidence showing that one kind of dog is more likely to injure a human being than another kind of dog, because there IS no peer-reviewed evidence to support that claim. Had she more time, she may have found Janis Bradley’s paper, debunking the notion that a dog’s breed make-up can predict future behavior (Link), or her excellent paper outlining the preventable risk factors that lead to dog bites.

Even the White House would have had something share: The Obama Administration cited the views of the Center for Disease and Control in a public statement, condemning breed specific legislation in favor of community based bite prevention programs. (Link)

Animal welfare experts may disagree on many things, but across the board, assigning dog bites to breed types is considered unscientific and obsolete. When a child is hurt, compassionate communities want helpful information that elevates their understanding of dog behavior and bite prevention - not a tired repeat of staged debates played out for website traffic scores. Public safety should be a shared goal prioritized by all, regardless of advocates’ personal opinions of dogs, and contemporary research and scientific opinion should lead the way in the conversation.

While dog bite related fatalities (DBRF) are exceedingly rare, we can learn a lot from studying the extremes. One of the most compelling studies on DBRFs was recently published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA). The report takes the topic of bite prevention to a new level by outlining key circumstances that lead to tragedies. By recognizing the ingredients to a preventable tragedy, communities are better equipped to educate families and reduce bite risks.

The factors included in DBRFs: “No able-bodied person present to intervene (87.1 percent); the victim had no familiar relationship with dog (85.2 percent); the owner failed to neuter/spay dog (84.4 percent); the victim's compromised ability to manage interactions with dog (77.4 percent); owner kept dog as resident rather than pet (76.2 percent); owner's prior mismanagement of dog (37.5 percent); and the owner's abuse or neglect of dog (21.1 percent)." Four or more of these factors were present in 80.5 percent of the cases - and breed was not a factor.

Despite the flurry of links, research and opinion that rocketed around the Net on the heels of the “Problem” article, Alder announced in a tweet “I stand by my piece.”

OR - You Can Stand Up for Bite Prevention

Victoria Wilcher is the child bite victim at the center of this saga. Her home state of Mississippi is the poorest state in the country. Sadly, dog bite incidents tend to be more common in lower income communities like hers than they are in more affluent communities for many of the reasons pointed out in this article. We’re glad Victoria is too young to know that she was exploited twice after her attack. Once, by her family with their bogus KFC claim, and then by a news source that chose to misuse her story for its own gain.

Every day, all day, millions of Americans interact successfully with millions of dogs (an estimated 70 million). Our love affair with canines of all shapes, sizes and breed make-up is a testament to our long history together. When we don't get it right and a child suffers bite injuries, we can choose to learn from the incident and grow wiser as a community or we can fall back on the media's hunger for sensation and look for a villain.

What if reputable media voices decided to power the public’s kind sympathy for bite victims into productive discussions of dog bite prevention instead of Kentucky Fried hoaxes? Imagine the good that would result. Without mad deadlines and the pressure to feed morbid fascinations, our daily news feed might not be nearly as splashy, but we'd be happy to forego the hype in the name of reducing dog bite injuries. Wouldn’t you?


Follow Up: TIME requested a rebuttal from BADRAP to the 'Problem' piece after a country of dog lovers pounded their outrage onto message boards and emails. In a phone conversation, assistant managing editor Susanna Schrobsdorff and I chewed around the edges of the topic, but found quick consensus on one important item: When dogs injure children, expert opinion and contemporary science wins the race. On that note, I asked if we could step aside and offer our rebuttal 'spot' to National Canine Research Council, a leading authority on public policy regarding dog matters, including bites. NCRC and TIME are currently in discussion about an upcoming article, as should have been the case weeks ago. We'll link that article when it launches.

Before hanging up, I had to ask Susanna if she'd considered removing the 'Problem' piece from the Net altogether. It tarnishes TIME's credibility and reduces a once well respected news source to a tabloid-like ambulance chasing rag.  Susanna is a smart gal and seemed motivated to repair some of the damage caused by Alter's blunder, but conveyed that she could not remove the article. Why?

"TIME has never done that before." She went on to explain, "and to be honest, I'd like to keep my job."


Richard Ford said...

I'm in full agreement with this article. Media and politicians play this game for popularity and money. Public safety is not relevant to them and this manipulation is absolutely dangerous to our children and our friends and families. Accurate information and education are the only way to increase public safety. But this is never the goal for media and politicians promoting BSL. As I recall an example of the Ontario Government and Michael Bryant and the fact that he later drove a bicycle courier into a mailbox to solve his problem and now having killed more people than any one pit bull breed in that province in the last 4 decades. Maybe he could have stopped and dialed 911 on his cell phone instead? Public safety was never his goal when he, acting as the Attorney General Of Ontario, introduced BSL,

Dianne said...

Excellent article as usual, Donna. Thanks for taking the time to write this out. I have met some of the NCRC folks and I am sure they will do a commendable job as well.

-KB said...

Great article, I can't wait to see the NCRC's rebuttal piece!

Laura said...

Thank you for once again clearly and concisely voicing the side of reason.

Jamie said...

Great response BadRap & I`m looking forward to NCRC`s response.
Have lost all respect for Time Magazine because of that article & for Charlotte Alter to stand by it is ridiculous.
As Douglas Cooper said "Wilful Ignorance is no longer Ignorance it`s stupidity"

Kristi said...

Excellent article BadRap! There are many factors to look at, but breed is not one.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article!

gena said...

"TIME has never done that before." She went on to explain, "and to be honest, I'd like to keep my job."

That "whooshing" sound you just heard was any and all credibility TIME ever had being flushed down the toilet. I get that this is a tough economy and that assistant managing editor jobs are probably a tough find, BUT to let an ill-informed opinion piece continue to stand as fact in a magazine with a circulation and readership like TIME, well…I guess it would be akin to the New York Times claiming to have found Bigfoot.

Thank you, Donna and Tim, for being the wise voices that know when to "chew around the edges" and when to let those who with an axe to grind grind it elsewhere. I don't know that I would have been able to master your level of restraint when repeatedly faced with fools. And thank you for continuing to keep us informed.

Kristine said...

SO nicely done! Thank you!

Dyan said...

Of late, I've been hearing that pitt bulls were the most popular dog to have as a pet. As a child I was terrorized by the neighbor's collie and never really liked Lassie because of it. Any dog has the potential to bite and we should look at the reason behind why a dog might bite someone. I think it falls back to us humans once again!

Mark Oszoli said...

I have to disagree with one thing here.

This is not Time Magazine's first blunder, if you think back January 2nd 1939 a man by the name of Adolf HITLER was named man of the year.

One would think that they learn the value of good research before publishing anything after that major screw up.

Greg said...

Great rebuttal and a polite reminder to aspiring journalists of the importance of researching a topic and employing critical thinking skills. The person responsible for the original article should consider a more appropriate position at the National Enquirer writing horoscopes and Batboy articles.

Anonymous said...

As child of 9 I watched as the neighbor's German Shepherd mauled their youngest girl. I was terrified of German Shepherds for the longest time after that. This was not made any better when my own father brought home a GS to combat the increasing number of break-ins in our area. I would no longer even venture into our own yard without an adult present. As I got older I realized my fears were unfounded so long as I did not startle our dog or act aggressively around him. We became fast friends and he grew to become my protector.

Throughout the years I have seen many breeds demonized by the movies and the media. German Shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, and now Pit Bulls.

Breed discrimination should not be tolerated just as we do not accept discrimination based on race, religion, color, gender, or sexuality in and by humans.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Richard Ford. Well spoken.

Anonymous said...

As a lifelong dog owner, who has had dozens of dogs. I have never been bitten once. Although my sister was badly bitten and scarred in childhood in an unprovoked attack. I agree that they should get rid of all of those types of dogs! Ban ALL Irish Setters!!

Anonymous said...

We go through this lengthy, credible work and someone writing for Time poops in the punch bowl.

Kristi in Duluth

Donna said...

Love your comment Kristi. LOL - Thanks for the visual.

Colleen said...

Here!!Here!! BadRap! Very well thought out, researched, and written!

What are the chances that TIME would publish your piece?

Joey Pitt said...

Well I must say that here in Ontario Canada , we seldom have a problem with these dogs , yes we have BSL that is seldom enforced . I take knowledge from experienced people , so Time magazine has no pit bull experience for me to absorb .Tia and her girls I will listen to.

porti said...

great job bless!