Media case study – The Christmas Day Tragedy

On Christmas Day, a man was violently attacked by two dogs in his home in Fort St. John. The attack was sudden and severe, and was covered widely by media across the province.

The victim and his family described the dogs as “pit bulls”. Breed description was not released at the time by the City’s  bylaw department (which serves as Animal Control), nor by the RCMP, nor by the SPCA that received the animals’ bodies for disposal.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 3.53.55 PM Predictably, the incident sparked the usual storm of media coverage about “pit bulls” and “dangerous breeds”. There have been Op-Eds about banning breeds on the Province blog, on the Tyee, and on talk shows across the province.

Sounds like the usual conversation, right? Except, for the third time this year, we find that the media missed a couple fact-checking steps in its rush to publish a “pit bull” story. This week, the dogs were finally identified by the bylaw department as American Bulldogs.  This is a breed often mis-identified as a “pit bull” breed but exempt from most breed-specific legislation.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 10.41.33 AMThat means that the breed restrictions or bans loudly advocated by Charlie Smith (editor of the Georgia Straight), Lori Welbourne (columnist for Post Media), and Bill Tieleman (columnist for 24 Hours and The Tyee) would have done nothing to stop three of the violent dog attacks that so agitated them this year. Yet these attacks provided them with platforms to share gory statistics and to openly advocate for the genocide of a breed that was not even involved.

The first was in July, when a large dog killed a puppy in Yaletown. The victim, understandably traumatized and disoriented, described the dog as a pit bull and the story received wide initial coverage as a “pit bull attack”. This was later corrected when Vancouver Animal Control identified the dog as a mastiff/bulldog cross.

yogiThe second was at the end of the year, when a serious attack on a young woman was reported as a “pit bull attack”. This dog was later identified as a Rottweiler/husky.

Now we have a third case where the conversation was quick to turn to a “breed debate” while it was clear that the media did not have all the information.

Kudos to CBC for taking the time to correct the breed ID in this week’s coverage. But for every article with this correction, there will be 20+ articles that only serve to cement the breed stigma in the minds of those susceptible to it. It detracts from constructive conversations we could be having about dog aggression and risk factors for dog bites. And let’s not forget that the “statistics” cited by Charlie, Lori, and Bill are based on media reports of dog aggression, creating a feedback loop that’s been cycling for 30 years.

Each time this happens we draw a deep breath and hope that the media will learn from their errors. Stop with the sensationalism. Report a dog attack as a dog attack, and don’t be so quick to assign a breed. It’s fairer, and it’s better journalism. If you feel the breed is relevant, wait until a reliable source of information surfaces:  the owner’s information about the dog’s heritage or, minimally, a statement from an impartial professional like an animal control officer or a veterinarian.

BreedSpecificLegislation_2And for the love of dog, will the Op-Eds stop? For three decades we have been tolerating the same clickbait comparing an imaginary category of dog to a loaded gun. Under the guise of concerned citizens, they use fear to advocate for laws that have proven ineffective and are being repealed across the continent.

Bill, Lori and Charlie seem content to be on the wrong side of the history. That’s their right. But if these opinions are winning column space, it tells you that people are interested in this topic. Why not feature another perspective?

In 2012, The Vancouver Sun asked Rebeka Breder, BC pre-eminent animal litigator, and Rebecca Ledger, one of BC’s few certified veterinary behaviourists, to pen an Op-Ed. People with advanced degrees and decades of experience commenting on the issue of dog aggression in our communities? That’s a great start!

If their degrees and evidence-based reasoning don’t attract the same number of clicks, there are plenty of trainers, behaviour consultants, vets, dog walkers, or animal rescues that would be happy to pen their own opinion piece based on experience. The Huffington Post has featured a “pit bull week” for the last couple years and have no shortage of clicks and shares. You’d be surprised at how many people want to read reason and compassion around these issues.

Please. Please expand your offerings on this topic.

Or – well – at least ensure your columnists are writing about the right “breed” when they propose exterminating it.


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