Negative media: clicks and dirty tricks

By Chantelle Mackney, Justice for Bullies, and April Fahr, HugABull.

When it comes to media coverage of dog attacks, we are all aware that things quickly become sensationalized and devolve into emotional conversations about breed. Reporters rush to publish their articles before deadline, pulling shocking statistics from online sources or interviewing pro-BSL advocates to create a tried-and-true story format that will generate clicks.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 2.19.38 PMAnd then there’s the inevitable “Op-Eds”  by luminaries like Barbara Kay, Lori Welbourne, and Bill Tieleman who LOVE publishing “ban pit bulls now” pieces and revelling in the outrage that ensues. Their host publications (National Post, The Province, The Tyee, and 24 Hours Vancouver) receive all the clicks with none of the accountability for content because it’s an “opinion” piece.

When we see these articles we are understandably outraged because they are wrong and contain clear misinformation. Followers will often post them to our pages or to discussion groups, encouraging people to speak up. But is doing so a good use of our time, or are we simply giving these articles more reach?

We all want to jump in and defend our cause, show our support, provide factual information and put these people in their places, so to speak. Many of us started our advocacy efforts by doing these things and entering the fray of online comment sections, but we found that these efforts were pointless and not the best use of our time.

These articles are created to get a response from us. They are created to polarize people and create anger. The authors want those clicks and comments; they want us to act out and become the stereotypes they created for us. Kay and Tieleman have both published articles recounting the abusive responses they receive to their columns, placing themselves as the victims and the “pit bull advocates” as irrational, abusive rednecks.

These articles also draw “trolls“* . There are a couple of pro-BSL groups that share any “pit bull” or BSL articles so that their followers can flood the comment sections. If you click through the comments on a BSL article in your local paper you’ll see many of the most prolific commenters are from people in the US. It’s easy to set up a Google News Alert for “pit bull” or “breed specific legislation” and fill up comment sections in their spare time. They may also use “bots”** to do this.

An example of the high-level insights you'll find on comment threads.

An example of the high-level insights you’ll find on comment threads.

The newspapers that publish these articles could not care less if they are receiving negative or positive responses and or views from the population. All they care about is numbers, because numbers drive advertising revenue. They could not care less what is mentioned in the threads of these comments, nor do they care about the damage these articles do. “Pit bull” headlines sell and that is all that matters to them.

Our advice? Stay out of the comments sections. No one is there to learn – if they are wading through the hundreds of posts, it’s because they enjoy drama or they already have a polarized opinion of their own.

Instead of spending your time with drama and negativity, think about other ways you can actually help people become more informed and think critically. Is it worth your time addressing or even thinking about some inflammatory article that will be tomorrow’s compost bin liner? Instead of adding to the thousands of clicks and comments, is there something else you can do? Perhaps you can find a balanced article and post that to your social media instead, encouraging intelligent discussion. Or send a letter to a city councillor, policy maker, or political candidate asking about their stance on these issues. Or spend time volunteering with a shelter or educational organization!

If you do feel strongly about addressing a negative article on social media, you can do so by naming the article and quoting short pieces of it without providing a link. If someone is interested enough they can find it, but you aren’t providing clicks and shares to the original media outlet.

If it is a news article with clear inaccuracies, it’s appropriate to send a polite and focused email to the reporter. If it’s an Op-Ed, you can try writing to the publication but we’ve found that with people like Welbourne, Tieleman, and Kay, they make a living from being inflammatory and aren’t receptive. You can contact the editor and/or advertisers at the papers that provide them with column space though. For more information on how to respond to media, visit DogBiteFacts.org and click on “Media” or “Resources > Communications Templates”.

Keep up the great advocacy work, but spend your time wisely and don’t contribute to hype!

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*people who start arguments on the Internet or upset people by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off topic messages to an online community deliberately trying to provoke a negative emotional response from others.

**in this context, a software application that searches phrases or terms and automatically posts repetitive and malicious information.

Photo by Eirick Solheim via Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo by Eirick Solheim via Flickr/Creative Commons

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