Yellow Journalism & Breed Bias — Again

A friend told me about a dog attack story just released by the Indianapolis Star. “Four pit bulls attacked a fifth dog,” he said. “But, you know, it’s the Star, so they could have been anything at all and if they bit something, they’re pit bulls.” He doesn’t even own dogs, but he’s aware of the paper’s bias.

When I first read the published news story, I was irritated, ranted on Facebook, and wrote a rational-but-angry letter to the editor. Alena has written up our complaints in her own blog, and I am copying her post here. — Laura…

Here we go again.

On February 17, the Indianapolis Star tweeted the following story:

“IMPD Cops Attacked By Pack of Pitbulls On Far Eastside”

Given the Star’s propensity for skewing the truth about dog attack-related stories (see my previous articles for examples), my warning flags immediately went up when I saw this headline, which on its own seems to imply that a group of vicious dogs attacked police officers without provocation. (After all, police are our public defenders. Only criminals and bad people would try to harm them, right?)

Upon reading the article, however, it turns out that while a police officer was attempting to break up a fight between multiple dogs, he fired his gun at them, sprayed them with pepper spray, used a stun-gun on them, shot one dog in the sidechased them into a yard, and THEN two of the wounded dogs — surprise, surprise — turned on police when they followed the dogs into the yard. (Who wouldn’t, after all that punishment?) Suddenly, that “pack of dogs” who are “attacking cops” from the headline is given a very different perspective.

Admittedly, I don’t know the full details of this incident. I don’t personally know the dogs involved, or how the fight started. I’m not faulting the police for their response; the officers may well have been correct in shooting the dogs, if they perceived a legitimate danger to themselves or others. But as the daughter of a journalist I despise both shoddy reporting and yellow journalism, and as an animal professional I despise breed profiling. In this case, the Indianapolis Star is guilty on all counts.

From a purely journalistic perspective, the article is confusing and badly-written.

  • Not only are strange spelling errors present (“viscously attacking”? What, were they oozing like mayonnaise?), but
  • we are told that the pit bulls were “dragging a brown dog into a pond,” as if they were deliberately trying to drown it, and
  • the number of shots fired don’t add up (we’re told the officer fired three individual shots, plus nine more, for a total of ten rounds).
  • An injured dog “scampered away,” as if in play, instead of fleeing.
  • The photo accompanying the article is an unrelated dog, from a high-media-profile attack three years earlier.

Add to that the misleading headline, and we’re back in the era of William Randolph Hearst for certain.

Oh, and there’s one other interesting bit that for some reason wasn’t included in the story: As it turns out, the unidentified “brown dog,” which the police valiantly tried to save, and which sadly had to be euthanized after the attack, was ALSO a pit bull. But in the news media, dogs who are victims aren’t pit bulls; they’re “brown dogs.” Only the dogs who viciously (viscously?) attack other dogs and police are pit bulls.

Certainly, dog fights happen, and they can be horrible and scary. As a dog owner and animal professional, I’ve had to break up a number of dog fights over the years. I’ve seen some really nasty ones; one of my dogs required lifesaving surgery after being attacked by multiple other dogs, and I was even sent to the emergency room myself when I got between two scuffling dogs and was bitten in both legs. (Not a good idea, for the record.) I’ve been threatened by dogs acting in self-defense. But in NONE of those situations would I have described what happened as “I was attacked by a pack of dogs.” Each time, there was a behavioral cause for what happened (whether that be severe fear aggression, resource guarding, etc.), and each time I came in as an outside party and got involved. I was never attacked. Those dogs were not human-aggressive, and should not have been labeled as such.

Likewise, in this incident, the police were not truly attacked. No humans were harmed by the dogs. Here we see injured dogs showed threatening behavior in self-defense after being cornered by the humans who had injured them. Even if the police officers were acting in the public interest by trying to track down the injured dogs, no competent animal professional would classify this kind of cornered defense behavior an “attack.”

But I digress. The point is, even without a background in animal behavior, the headline writers at the Star should be able to read the article and pull out the most salient detail for their title. Admittedly, the headline “Police respond to dog fight” may not sell a lot of papers — though I daresay “Police spray local residence with bullets while attempting to break up dog fight” would have gotten them some attention (and according to the published story, it’s fully as accurate as the headline they used). It’s irresponsible journalism to skew the reader’s view by publishing grossly misleading headlines, no matter what the subject of the article.

The link to the Star’s full article is here.

Laura again — I’d posted this as a comment before the blog went down, so I’m adding it here in case we can’t recover everything….

To be fair to the officers involved — a 5-dog fight of ANY variety, regardless of dog size or breed, is a nightmare! And cops are not trained animal professionals, and it’s unfair to expect them to be. We don’t know if these officers called for Animal Control, we don’t know how the first officer was called to the scene and if the call said a human was in danger, we don’t know so many things about this incident. To be fair, people are going to be unhappy with almost any way this could have been handled (“you let dogs get injured worse while you waited for help!”) and I do recognize that.

A friend — fabulous trainer, police officer, ex-military — was trying to develop an education program for police on handling dog interactions safely; I’m not sure if it got off the ground or went many places, but it would be great to prevent many common tragedies (barking dogs shot as police pursue a suspect through neighborhood, etc.).

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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4 Comments

  1. Growing up, I was convinced of the notion that newspapers were for The Truth. Every time I’m proved otherwise (and don’t worry, I won’t argue this point. I know it’s a Utopic ideal) it both saddens me and drives me crazy. Especially with this article; why aren’t police officers trained on how to deal with dogs? How to appropriately break up a dog fight? (Though so far as the shots go, he may have had an extended mag, or one in the chamber [look at me sounding all gun like. I’m a parrot, I assure you])

    Granted, I am also not a police officer. But from my remove, it sounds like the dog fight could have been handled so much better (and really, who wants a gun happy cop like that in their neighborhood?), and the news article…..yeah.

    • To be fair to the officers involved — a 5-dog fight of ANY variety, regardless of dog size or breed, is a nightmare! And the cops are not trained animal professionals, and it’s unfair to expect them to be. We don’t know if this officer called for Animal Control, we don’t know how the officer was called to the scene and if the call said a human was in danger, we don’t know so many things about this incident. To be fair, people are going to be unhappy with almost any way this could have been handled (“you let dogs get injured worse while you waited for help!”) and I do recognize that.

      A friend — fabulous trainer, police officer, ex-military — was trying to develop an education program for police on handling dog interactions safely; I’m not sure if it got off the ground or went many places. I hope it does, as it would prevent a lot of common tragedies (barking dogs shot by police pursuing suspect through neighborhoods, etc.).

      • Dog fights are scary thing, and a 5 dog fight…well, I don’t have the words collected right now to describe how I feel about the responsibility of dog owners. Sometimes things just happen, I get that. But somebody needs to have a head on. Really, I’m not a fully trained animal professional, I have no idea how I would go about breaking up a 5 dog fight. 2 dogs? I’ve got the mechanical notion anyway. Some cops don’t. A lot is expected of police, which can be fortunate, and not. Law enforcement officers are not saints, much as we would love for them to be, and they don’t always have the answers either. 

        I also hope a dog-interaction type of program becomes commonplace for law enforcement, especially with the size of today’s pet industry. Lots of people have dogs that they would prefer are not shot by the police; granted, some pet owners do things like manage, train, and supervise their dogs to try to mitigate that kind of tragedy. Others try, and their dogs get out anyway. Others don’t, and are surprised when bad things happen.

        People, and dogs, are so unpredictable. 

  2. Excellent post.
    Have you ever read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell?
    Two quotes about the book from Wikipedia:
    The author describes the main subject of his book as “thin-slicing”: our ability to gauge what is really important from a very narrow period of experience.
    and
    Gladwell explains how an expert’s ability to “thin slice” can be corrupted by their likes and dislikes, prejudices and stereotypes (even unconscious ones), and how they can be overloaded by too much information. Two particular forms of unconscious bias Gladwell discusses are Implicit Association Tests and psychological priming.

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