Sunday, August 1, 2010

The cold, hard facts about the media and dog attacks

In yesterday's post, I looked at how two different media outlets reported the two most recent dog-bite related human fatalities in California. Still, one example doesn't make a rule. Today, I'm going to go with some cold, hard statistics, thanks to research done by Libby Sherrill for her documentary Beyond the Myth.

Libby interviewed Carl Friedman, the former Director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control. Hardly, an opponent of breed-specific-legislation (BSL), he wrote a canine response working group report that cited Denver, Colorado as a "best practice" for breed specific legislation. Denver, of course, has an outright ban on Pit Bulls and has euthanized thousands of innocent dogs.

However, even he recognizes that the media gives unequal coverage to dog bites. In an interview with Sherrill, he stated, "When a Pit Bull, let's say, mauls somebody or a Pit Bull bites somebody, chances are you're going to see that on the first or second page of the newspaper and probably on the five O'clock news or six O'clock news. If another dog bites somebody or a different breed bites somebody, chances are it won't even be reported."

Sherrill's documentary looked at how the media reported on two significant dog-related fatalities of children. The first was Kate-Lynn Logel, killed in 2005 by her family's Malamutes. A search containing the phrase "Kate-Lynn Logel" yielded 18 articles.

A search containing the phrase "Nicholas Faibish" yielded 292 articles.

The study showed that 68% of news articles reporting "pit bull" or "pit bull mix" attacks mentioned "pit bull" in the headline. Only 8% of news articles reporting on attacks by other breeds mentioned the breed in the headline.

This type of inequitable reporting is not limited to dog attacks. It's so common in the media, that it has a name: agenda-setting. What agenda setting boils down to is simple. The media decides what's important to report on, and in making that choice, the media tells people what's important, and how the media reports on those issues influences how people think about those issues.

So, next time you take in a news story about a dog attack (or, really, any other issue), before you form an opinion on the subject, it might be wise to do your own research based on sources outside the media (which can admittedly be hard to do, since even the Centers for Disease Control used the media as a source in its famous 1997 dog-bite related study).

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