Media case study – misidentification in Richmond

pit-bull-rottweiler-cross

Is this what you think of when you picture a pit bull? How about a pit bull mix?
A Rottweiler/pit bull mix? A Rottweiler mix?
A Rottweiler/husky mix?

Over the last week, this photo has represented all these things, as the face of a recent dog attack.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 9.33.01 AMOn Wednesday, December 30, a woman was badly attacked by a dog and hospitalized. The circumstances vary widely between media, police, and social media posts by those involved – some reports say the dog was being walked on leash and suddenly attacked; some say the dog was tied to a tree and lashed out. We know that a woman was badly injured and sent to the hospital, and a bystander was injured in the process of trying to help.

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This photo, sourced from Facebook, is thought to be the dog involved in the incident.

The dog was known to the victim, so if the RCMP or media wished to make a breed identification it should have been a simple enough process. Yet somehow the black and tan dog was labelled a pit bull and this made its way into the initial RCMP press release.

So for a full 24 hours, this ran as yet another pit bull attack story. HugABull received two media calls on New Year’s Eve because this recent event, together with another incident in Northern BC had “re-ignited the debate” about pit bulls, rottweilers, and other “vicious breeds”.

12465702_10153663979811558_1271548074_oThe victim of the dog attack, while dealing with her own injuries, was outraged enough to take the time to post about this breed misidentification on Thursday night. The RCMP also took the time to issue a public correction, and slowly this news began to trickle out into the media. Up to Thursday night, the dog was being reported as a Rottweiler/pit bull cross.

Now, many news outlets have corrected their online reports to read Rottweiler cross or Rottweiler/husky cross, and uploaded new photos. Interestingly, once the breed identification was corrected, we noticed the tone of the reporting change as well, along with the comments under these reports. People are talking about whether there was past history of aggressive behaviour. What circumstances led up to the attack. Whether the dog was abused. What will be done with the dog.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 10.19.29 AMNotice the difference? A “pit bull” story leads to outrage and a discussion about whether they are inherently bad dogs that should be restricted. A “dog bite” story leads to much more nuanced and important questions about the pet dogs we share our lives with.

To the RCMP and media – we appreciate your taking the time to issue a correction of the breed ID. It’s not the first time misidentification has happened, but it’s the first time the correction has been publicized widely, and that’s appreciated.

But more meaningfully, can we learn from this the next time there is an incident with a dog? There will be a next time. Serious dog bites are rare, but with hundreds of thousands of dogs in our province, it’s statistically certain that 2016 will see its share of serious dog bites. At least a few dozen, if not more. We don’t know for sure because there’s no data source for this in BC. Maybe that’s a good place to start if we are worried about aggressive dog problems in our community.

So to the reporters and responders out there – when it happens, we have a couple requests.  Please be consistent in what you cover. Is a serious attack on another dog newsworthy? Then cover them all. In June we heard about a mastiff/bulldog mix that killed a small dog in Yaletown. We heard about it a lot when a witness identified the dog as a pit bull. We heard about it less when it was found to be a mixed breed. Within a week, another small dog was almost killed by an Airedale in the same neighbourhood. We heard a few reports about that. And within a month, another small dog was killed by a German Shepherd in a Vancouver suburb. That didn’t make the news at all.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 10.41.33 AM

Original headline read “Three hospitalized after pit bull-rottweiler dog goes berserk”. Accompanying article refers to pit bulls and calls for restrictions.

Second, if there isn’t a reliable breed ID for the dog, please don’t include it. Don’t ask witnesses what the dog was; don’t even rely on police or animal control personnel on the scene. If the owner knows the dog’s parents or pedigree, or if a formal ID is made by animal control later on, that’s a reasonable source, but until then why can’t it be a “dog attack”?  In fact, why can’t it stay a “dog” attack?

Breed misidentification and sensationalism hurts us. It hurts the millions of responsible dog owners whose dogs happen to have the square heads – who are pit bulls or who are perceived as pit bulls. It diminishes our quality of life, restricts our housing options, and sometimes leads to outright abuse. It also hurts the community at large, because after 30 years of scaremongering about pit bulls, we rarely have the opportunity to have conversations about what we can do to steward happy, healthy, harmonious relationships with the canines in our community.

We work every day to move these conversations forward, and we need your help. It is truly in the best interest of all of us – four-legged and two-legged.

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For the record, the photo at the top of this post would not be considered a typical “pit bull” breed but rather an extremely large American Bully, a newer breed that is not common in BC. The photo has since been updated.

Further reading on breed (mis)identification in the media:
http://www.nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com/blog/potentially-preventable-husbandry-factors-co-occur-in-most-dog-bite-related-fatalities/

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