Media case study – the mastiff mixup

Yesterday in Langley, a dog attack with an especially unfortunate outcome made the news. A loose dog attacked an on-leash dog, then died after being subdued by the leashed dog’s owner. While this wasn’t reported as a “pit bull” attack it does provide another example of the media’s propensity to pin a breed label on a dog early, even when few facts are known.

Initial reports were of a Cane Corso attacking a Labrador. A stock photo of a Cane Corso was sourced.

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Then, perhaps when new information was gleaned, the breed ID stopped appearing so prominently in headlines, but still remained in body copy. The stock photo remained also.

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The dog was eventually identified and found to be a Dogo Argentino. Some ensuing reports used photos that appeared to have been provided by the Dogo owner, and added information based on interviews with him.

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In a Reddit thread by a family member of the victim, the attacked dog was described as a Golden Retriever. So depending on how exacting you want to be, both breeds in the original headlines appear to be incorrect.

A 2013 study by the American Veterinary Medical Association pointed out that a reliable breed identification was only available in 18% of cases they studied (in this case, dog bite related fatalities). They found that media reports did not match other sources of breed data up to 40% of the time.

With this potential for error, we have to question why reporters are so quick to publish these breed guesses. Why not report a dog attack as a “dog” attack? In these stories, more often than not the dog identified as a “pit bull” turns out to be a Rottweiler/Husky  or an American Bulldog or a big old mixed up mutt. And that’s when we have an owner or a DNA test to reference, usually after the initial reports are yesterday’s news. In most cases we never know an offending dog’s parentage.

Is breed really so important to the story that a reporter needs to nail it down right away in the headline, based on unsubstantiated reports by witnesses who may be emotional, traumatized, and certainly not breed identification experts?

Considering that that media gets it wrong more times than not, it seems that the standard should be to refrain from reporting a dog breed unless a reliable source can substantiate it: for example, an owner who knows parentage, vet/animal control records, or a statement from the City’s Animal Services Staff. Given that other circumstances around the attack are probably more relevant, like known risk factors that are identified by reputable studies – this seems to make more sense and be more useful for the community as a whole.

It is time to stop irresponsible reporting when it comes to dog bites. Journalists must take responsibility and stop assuming, speculating, guessing or providing unsubstantiated identification about the breed of the dog involved in an incident. The current practice hurts our communities, it deepens stigma and superstition around certain categories of dogs, and it prevents us from engaging in more productive conversations about dog safety in our community.

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