If you think about it, you know you shouldn’t trust the news media.
Decades ago, I realized that almost any time I read or watched a news report involving something I knew about, it was almost always wrong, confused, left out important data, or lied. Initially this realization manifested itself in sports reporting about baseball in general and the Boston Red Sox in particular, but later, as my knowledge expanded, so did my experience with authoritative news reports that were, metaphorically of course, full of crap. When I ran a research foundation for the US Chamber of Commerce, this phenomenon really came into focus. Reporters misunderstood what researchers said in answer to their questions. They misrepresented the press releases. They obviously didn’t read the full studies, and pretended they had. They misquoted me.
I didn’t think this was sinister. Mostly, the cause was laziness and inadequate intellectual training and cognitive skills. Most reporters I dealt with just weren’t very bright or well-educated. And I it suddenly hit me, one fine day in the Spring of 1981, like bolt from the blue:
Tf news reports are so often significantly wrong when I know a lot about the topic, why do I believe and rely on news stories about topics I don’t know much about? It makes no sense to trust these people.
The depressing thing is that the news media was far less biased and far more professional then than now. At least you know, however, that my distrust of U.S. journalism isn’t of recent vintage.
I thought about my 1981 epiphany when I read this story in the Washington Post this morning. It is crafted as a heart-tugging report about the tragic death of a 7-year-old boy, with the headline, “‘It’s my baby. It’s my baby’: Two pit bulls fatally maul 7-year-old boy in Mass., authorities say.”
As readers here know, Ethics Alarms has thoroughly researched and covered the topic of ignorant anti-pit bull breed bias. The argument that the three to five breeds commonly regarded as “pit bulls” are inherently dangerous and more so than any other large breed rests on the same illogic as racial bias against humans; it has no factual basis in science or experience. I also, quite separately from my research, have a lot of personal experience with dogs of all kinds, including the so called “bully breeds.”
The reporter obviously does not, nor did he do the research necessary to write this story competently. The first sign is that the dogs are identified as “pit bulls” according to “authorities.” The authorities are obviously not authorities on dog breeds, and multiple studies have shown that few people are capable of accurately identifying a “pit bull.” First, there is no such breed. The breeds commonly called “pit bulls” are American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and the American Pit Bull Terrier, as well as the American Bull Dog, because it kind of looks like a pit bull, and the Bull Terrier, which has “bull” in its name. Pit breed mixes are also often identified as pit bulls, though a lab/pit bull breed mix, for example, is as much a Labrador retriever as a “pit bull.” Never mind. If a large dog has short ears, a muscular body, a square muzzle and bites someone, that’s plenty, along with confirmation bias, to lead an “authority” to identify a dog as a “pit bull,” and for the news media to report it that way.
A lot of the time the description from the victim, onlooker or the police is wrong. but as one source notes, “Which is a more compelling hea line, “Pit bull mauls child” or “Unidentified dog mauls child”? There won’t be a correction if the attack turns out to have been by a mastiff, a Corso Cano, a boxer mix, an American Bull Dog ot a mutt. A stupid woman in the park once got hysterical because she thought my Jack Russell terrier was a pit bull. Like most products of hate, fear, bias and prejudice, the campaign against these dogs is almost exclusively led by people who are completely ignorant and have no desire to be educated.
The Post reporter, Travis Andrews, quotes this statistic: “From 2005 to 2015, pit bull attacks caused 232 deaths, which accounted for 64 percent of all deaths caused by dog bites during that decade.” That’s fake news. The statistic has been debunked repeatedly by dog breeders and experts on many grounds, including the fact that it combines several breeds into one, ignores the circumstances of the attack, and was created from initial news reports only, which often use “pit bull” as a default description when the breed is uncertain. But then look at the source of that stat: DogsBite.org.
Does it sound familiar? If you have been an Ethics Alarms reader, it might: Ethics Alarms designated that sites as an Unethical Website of the Month in 2015, with me writing in part,
Pretending that there is some dog-monster known as a The Pit Bull is just one of the lies (or examples of reckless ignorance) perpetrated by hysteric and her deadly band of anti-dogowner fanatics on their website. Denver’s infamous pit bull ban, like Lynn, defines the “breed” as “an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one of those breeds.” This rigged methodology renders the statistics repeatedly cited by anti-pit bull bigots obvious nonsense. When one compares one distinct breed to many or more by falsely representing them as one breed, then it’s not hard to show that the fake breed is disproportionately aggressive. Says the site: “If it looks like a pitbull, then it is one.”
…Dogsbite.Org deals in bad statistics, debunked fallacies and anti-dog propaganda that has turned into cruel legislation in communities all over the country. Their tactics succeed because craven political hacks would rather kill harmless pets than risk losing the votes of PETA members, dog breed ignoramuses and bigots.
Many of those dog breed ignoramuses and bigots have commented in the still growing threads on that post. They generally have not bothered to read the voluminous cites and research I have assembled in my other posts on this topic. or the powerful evidence presented in the documentary, Beyond the Myth.
There are whole websites devoted to warning the public and the news media about Dogsbite.org, including one created by the American Dog Breeder’s Association (it cites my post, among others.) On that site, a study by the American Veterinary Association is quoted that explains why the statistic cited by the Post is junk.
So why did the Post reporter use that statistic? Why didn’t he check his source? Why didn’t he examine how the statistic was created? It’s simple, really.
First, neither he nor his editors were interested in the dogs, or the issue of breed specific bans. They were interested in a visceral, sensational news story, hence the beginning on the headline, ‘It’s my baby. It’s my baby.’
Second, the story’s angle is that “pit bulls” are dangerous, and the piece is assembled to make that case. The two graphics used online are a photo of the deceased child, and a video that sits there holding the image of some kind of pit bull breed mix. That isn’t either of the dogs involved in the attack, though. Misleading, incompetent, sloppy.
Third, there aren’t any reputable sources that will back that bogus statistic. If you want stats to make people think “pit bulls” are deadly, you go to DogsBite.org. Here is another site’s assessment of DogsBite:
“While it seems that lately, several media outlets have been treating them like they have a particular knowledge on the subject of dog bites and attacks (I’ll get to a possible “why” on that later in the post), itdoesn’t erase the reality that dogsbite.org is simply a website run almost entirely by an individual person who has an expertise in web design, access to google, and a desire to seek revenge on an attack that happened to her several years. Those are the qualifications behind the website. And it runs no deeper than that. And treating the website as anything more than that is a recipe bad information that will lead to less safe circumstances for people and dogs.”
Finally, the reporter didn’t vet or check his source, investigate the facts, or bother to educate himself about what he was writing about. He was incompetent and lazy.
What then, does this Travis Andrews’ story tell us about the integrity, professionalism, competence and trustworthiness of the Washington Post when it supposedly informs the public about what “it has the right to know”? And since the Washington Post is supposed to represent the best in American journalism, what does this tell us about the quality of American journalism?
These are not difficult questions. They just have frightening answers.