Pit bull bias

CBC News in Calgary posted a story on line involving a dog fight. One of the dogs was a pit bull. The complainant, Sean Kelly, thought the story unfairly singled out the pit bull to sensationalize the story and that the media has created the bias against these dogs. But I did not find any policy violation.

COMPLAINT

A brief story on the pages of the CBC news site in Calgary recounted an incident in an off-leash park where two dogs fought. One of them was a pitbull. Since the term pit bull actually encompasses several breeds, it is not clear the specific breed involved. When the owner of the dog of another, unspecified breed bent down to break up the fight, the baby he was carrying in a sling fell down and was slightly injured. The initial reports of the story stated the baby had been bitten by the pit bull.

You complained that the story was “sensationalistic and potentially inaccurate.” You pointed out that other news agencies were reporting that the child in fact had not been bitten. You felt this story was an indication of an overall bias against pit bulls because these dogs have received considerably more coverage than others over a period of years:

Throughout the past several years CBC is far more likely to put the breeds named in the article if it is a pitbull (versus) any other breed. Based on the overwhelming amount CBC reports on Pitbulls (versus) any other breeds it is obvious that the CBC is biased against the breed or using the breed to sell the news. I find this to be against the CBC’s journalistic code as it is not fair, or unbiased, is potentially false and is definitely not accurate.”

You think that this article was just one more example of the inherent bias CBC journalism displays against pit bulls, and cite studies that show there is no appreciable change in the number of reported dog bites in jurisdictions where this category of dog has been banned.

MANAGEMENT REPSONSE

The Managing Editor of News in Calgary, Helen Henderson, responded to your complaint. She acknowledged that the first published version of the story did have incorrect information that the child had been bitten by the pit bull. She explained this was based on information given to the writer “by the Calgary Police Services inspector on duty at that time.” She also said that as soon as the mistake was identified, a clarification was broadcast on the next radio newscast and the online version was corrected with an appropriate “Corrections and Clarifications” box advising readers of the changes and why they were made.

She said mentioning the type of dog was not an indication of bias or sensationalism. Rather, she said it is “pertinent information.” She explained:

Whether justified or not – and I fully appreciate that many believe it is not, perhaps including you – reported pit bull attacks have resulted in legislation in a number of jurisdictions (including Ontario) banning or restricting the ownership of this type of dog.”

REVIEW

The story in question, “Baby taken to hospital after incident with pit bull,” was a very brief news report of an incident at a local dog park. It’s so brief that the headline really provides most of the relevant information. In the initial reports, the information was that the child was bitten by the animal. Perhaps, as you assert, if the correct information had been known at the outset, the story may not have been written. But that is hindsight, and a choice of story is not necessarily an indication of bias.

The daily choices newsrooms make about what stories to cover are based on a number of considerations of what makes an event newsworthy: the safety of the community, the uniqueness of the event, the drama or surprise it might spark, or the resonance it would have with others in the community. Furthermore the Ombudsman is independent of the news department and has little say in the stories newsrooms choose to cover, unless there is a discernible pattern of omission or commission.

In this case the story is so straightforward, it is hard to see what could be considered “sensationalism.” Including the fact that one of the dogs involved was a pit bull is accurate and part of what makes the story newsworthy, as there is controversy over these dogs in many jurisdictions. It was the pit bull that was confiscated by Animal Services. I would expect that no matter what breed was involved, that detail would be included because that is valuable information for a reader to have.

I understand your point that pit bulls are stereotyped as aggressive animals; nevertheless, that does not mean the story violated CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices. The expectation of balance and fairness is that it is achieved over time – that a variety of perspectives and points of view are represented. It would be expecting a little too much from a news story of this length to delve into the controversy surrounding pit bulls. CBC News in Calgary technically violated policy when it published a story with incorrect information, but appropriately corrected it and acknowledged the error when news staff became aware that it was wrong. The policy on Accountability states:

"We are aware of the impact of our journalism and are honest with our audiences. We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow-up a story when a situation changes significantly."

Your broader argument is that pitbulls have been singled out for bans under “Specific Breed Legislation” because of the focus of media organizations, CBC included, on incidents involving them. You cite a study done by the National Canine Research Council which found there is no significant change in the number of reported dog bite incidents in jurisdictions that have banned the breed. Another citation you offer is CBC news coverage of a different study showing much the same results.

This review deals with the single CBC news report out of Calgary. It did not violate CBC policy. But the points you raise are worth noting. Had this been a more detailed or in-depth piece of reporting about pit bulls, it would be worthwhile to provide more context about attitudes and public policy about them. When and where it is appropriate, some context about the science around these dogs and some of the studies you have cited would provide a greater understanding of the issues at stake. Its absence from this news report does not violate policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman