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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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."