Report on coyote attack on child

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

This review follows a public complaint that a CBC Radio report described a coyote that bit an eight-year-old Ontario girl as a “beast.” I did not find there was a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

A CBC Radio report January 20, 2012 described an incident the day before in Oakville, Ontario, in which a coyote bit an eight-year-old girl on the leg. In his script, reporter Colin Butler noted: “She wasn't seriously hurt, but the hungry beast chased her all the way home.”

Authorities were called and the animal was later shot and killed. The girl now faced an array of rabies shots, the report said.

The complainant, AnnaMaria Valastro, is the executive director of the Peaceful Parks Coalition, an environmental and conservation organization that, among other things, promotes “a holistic worldview of wildlife and the natural environment.”

Valastro wrote January 30, 2012 that CBC Radio “went beyond reporting the facts of the incident. It added derogatory editorial comment in describing the coyote as a ‘beast' and failed to place the incident in context.”

Valastro said the report could create “an atmosphere of fear rather than one of educated caution,” that coyotes “have been victims of hyperbole,” and that poor reporting “does little to help us understand and resolve human/wildlife conflicts.”

Valastro said coyotes have lived among people in rural and urban areas for decades but people “have learned very little about their ecology and how to coexist with them.” They're shy animals and “coyotes that cross paths with humans tend to be juveniles who have yet to learn where not to go.”

She added: “While there should always be caution when encountering a coyote or any animal, it is editorial misconduct to intentionally vilify them by portraying them as ‘beasts' and more dangerous than they really are.”

Valastro said research indicates domestic dogs bite an average of more than 400,000 people a year in Canada, but that scratches and bites from coyotes average 2.4 incidences a year.

“I question whether a CBC news report would apply the same derogatory comments in describing a dog bite, therefore showing bias towards wildlife,” she said.

It is the responsibility of the press to report accurately, she concluded.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back February 9 (Valastro only received the response March 6 after Enkin sent the response a second time). She said she regretted that Valastro understood the report in the way she had. “It is certainly not our intention to encourage ignorance or promote misinformation about any animal. But I wonder if you are inferring more from the word than its meaning suggests.”

Enkin said the use of the term “beast” was “a colourful description, to be sure, but the dictionary definition of ‘beast' is simply any animal other than man, especially a large wild quadriped — a bear, moose or a wolf, say. It is even used to describe not so wild large animals, such as horses, bullocks and donkeys — all beasts of burden.”

Enkin added: “It is when the word is applied to man that it carries the suggestion of violence, brutality or uncivilized or savage behaviour.”

Valastro wrote again March 6 and asked for a review. She said she was dissatisfied with the CBC response, asserted that the term “beast” was derogatory no matter how it was used, and said it was “ no different than calling someone who is perceived as dirty or sloppy as a ‘pig' or someone who is perceived as stupid or stubborn as an ‘ass'.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for clear, precise language.

“The use of certain highly charged words can undermine credibility and merits special consideration,” the policy states. “Language is constantly evolving. We will be attentive to shifts in the meaning of words. We consult language resources and editorial management as needed to grasp the impact of expressions that are open to multiple interpretations and capable of offending some audience members.”

Other elements of the policy that deal with stereotypes or language that might give rise to prejudice are directed at coverage of people.

Conclusion

The ideal context the complainant sought — that coyote/human conflicts are rare — was actually at the root of the incident's newsworthiness. This was an event out of the ordinary, one conventional framework of news. The child's vulnerability and the cautionary tale for the community also justified the story's presence and prominence in the newscast. Articulating the context — the rarity of the conflict — wasn't particularly necessary to fulfill policy.

While it's true that “beast” has a couple of connotations, in this instance it wasn't in any way misplaced in describing an animal that bit a child. It wasn't applied to all coyotes, only this one, and it wouldn't have been misplaced in describing other biting animals.

I take the complainant's point that there is much to learn about how to coexist with animals in urban centres and that journalism has a role to play in providing this deeper understanding.

But it was also important to note in this instance how authorities were alerting the community about the need to be careful. Reflective examination is a good attribute for any news organization, but journalism also plays an essential and somewhat more urgent role to notify the public about any immediate safety concerns. CBC did so in this case with an accessible illustration.

The report did not violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman