The Pit Bull Controversy

The complainant, April Fahr, is the Director of Education and Advocacy for the HugABull Advocacy & Rescue Society. She was concerned that a Fifth Estate episode on whether pit bulls should be banned was biased and cherry-picked data and information. The documentary featured the highly polarized views of both the dog and the evidence about the breed.

COMPLAINT

You are the Director of Education and Advocacy for the HugABull Advocacy & Rescue Society. Along with Chantelle Mackney, who is involved with Justice for Bullies Canine Society of Alberta, you complained about a Fifth Estate episode entitled Pit Bulls unleashed: Should they be banned? You felt the broadcast fell short in many ways, and violated CBC Journalistic policies of balance and fairness. You had four areas of concern.

1. “Disregard of reputable studies”
You thought the Fifth Estate team was selective in the academic literature it chose to highlight. You said there were many peer-reviewed academic studies which dealt with the issues of dog breeds and bites, risk factors for dog attacks and the question at the heart of this documentary - breed-specific legislation. You cited some you considered notable, including a literature review published in the American Veterinary Medical Association and a Canadian Veterinary Journal report.

You thought there was too much emphasis put on studies conducted by a plastic surgeon in Arkansas, Dr. Michael Golinko, who had conducted a study on dog bite injuries treated in a hospital in Atlanta and another based on analysis of data on dog bite injuries in the State of Arkansas. You questioned the reliance on someone approaching the issue from a public health perspective:

With his expertise, he maybe a good resource to speak to about the presentation of dog bite injuries and how to treat them in a clinical setting. We do not believe it is reasonable to consider him an expert in dog behaviour or breed identification.

We believe that the Fifth Estate did not perform due diligence in its background research and focused on a single source without placing it in fair context of other research available.

2. “Use of unreliable and biased information”
You thought the broadcast relied too heavily on sources who are anti-pit bull. You said Mark Kelley, the presenter of the piece, quoted data from organizations like Animals 24-7 and Dogsbite.org which have “a clear and public agenda to exterminate certain groups of dogs.” You felt there should have been caveats about the source of the information:

In the documentary, the National Canine Research Council is named but quickly dismissed as being run by a “pro-pitbull organization”. The research on that site is drawn from peer reviewed sources and people with deep academic backgrounds. Why was it discounted when sources like Animals 24-7, Daxton’s friends, and Dogsbite.org were leaned upon so heavily?

You disputed Dr. Golinko’s interpretation of his own data:

The data seems to show that breed identification was available only 31% of the time. Given that breed identification is often difficult and/or flawed it is likely that the “pit bulls” were misidentified. But even if they weren’t, the percentage of “pit bulls” responsible for total bites in the study would be 15% at most. This is a far cry from the implication that 50% of all serious dog bite injuries to children are by pit bulls.

You also disputed the mention of the American Bully dog being included under Ontario’s pit bull ban legislation.

3. “Reliance on [questionable] American sources to cover a Canadian story”
You questioned the heavy reliance on American sources. You pointed out that there was no reference to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s position paper on breed bands. You pointed out that your own organization and others advocate for “breed-neutral legislation.” You added that there are jurisdictions in Canada that have bans in place, and there was no attempt to get an assessment of enforcement from those responsible for doing so. You thought the content to be inordinately influenced by those associated with advocating pit bull bans.

4. “Balance of conversation”
You think that the primary spokesperson in support of pit bulls, Ledy VanKavage of Best Friends Animal Society, was not given adequate air time to present her case:

Ms. VanKavage was shown only in a series of short segments, in some cases where she clearly didn’t have time to finish a full thought.

You said she was not provided adequate opportunity to explain that there is little support for breed-specific bans. You contrasted this with the dramatic images and sounds from a 911 call from a distraught woman whose pit bulls attacked a young child, Daxton Borchardt, who died in the attack.

5. “Evading legitimate arguments”
You believe that the documentary failed to present the arguments against banning a specific breed. You pointed out other information you thought should have been highlighted as important context - that defining “pit bull” is flawed because it is a “poorly-defined construct” requiring visual identification, which is not reliable. You reiterated there is little evidence that bans of this breed have been effective in reducing dog bites.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

You got two responses to your email, one from Claude Vickery who was the Producer of the piece, but has since retired from the CBC. The other was from Jim Williamson, Executive Producer of The Fifth Estate. Mr. Vickery told you he appreciated how sensitive and controversial this topic is. He mentioned that he and his team had done extensive research, both from journals and books:

We reviewed a wide range of literature including the Bronwen Dickey book Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, and Malcolm Gladwell - Troublemakers - What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Profiling. We also paid close attention to emails that were sent to newspapers and politicians from various pit bull supporter groups.

He replied to your concern that research from the National Canine Research Council (NCRC) was not given sufficient attention. He said that the research was referenced in the body of the work.

He explained the documentary chose to use a public safety focus, and therefore it was legitimate to use hospital-based research and include Dr. Golinko and his studies of hospitals in Arkansas and Georgia:

We feel those studies to be highly relevant and based on solid scientific protocols. It’s also worth noting that they were also conducted recently and involved substantial sample sizes. In Canada most sample sizes are simply too small, which arguably might make conclusions less credible.

He added that because there is a much smaller pit bull population in Canada, many of the experts and participants were American. However, pit bulls are now being imported into Canada, and that is one of the considerations for making the story relevant to Canadian audiences.

He agreed the images of injured children were graphic and shocking. He explained they were used “to inform, as well as to stimulate discussion.”

The Executive Producer, Jim Williamson, echoed Mr. Vickery in stating that the programmers did a thorough literature review, and that the producer looked again at the studies you cited in your complaint:

We believe that the statistics we cited and the people we interviewed gave viewers the necessary information to reach their own conclusions, and to find out more about the subject if they choose to do so. We recognize, however, that those with considerable expertise, like yourself, might wish for more detail and wider context.

REVIEW

The Fifth Estate aired its episode about the controversy around pit bulls in the aftermath of the death of Christine Vadnais, who was killed in a dog attack in Montreal in June of 2017. There ensued a debate in Quebec about the need for a ban of the pit bulls. It was an extremely polarized debate and illustrated the depth of passion around this type of dog. It also illustrated the well-organized lobby that advocates on behalf of them. The city of Montreal banned them, then after the municipal election, the ban was overturned. The province has legislation pending. This is a matter in the public interest with a bearing on public policy. I mention this by way of general background, but also to address your concern about the U.S. focus of the piece. Most of the lobbying efforts originate with American groups. Since there is a much greater population of these types of dogs in the United States, it is reasonable to focus on U.S. experience and spokespeople. The location may have been American, but the issues and challenges are not country-specific. There is another relevant journalistic reason for exploring the experience in the United States: animal rescue groups in Canada are bringing the dogs to this country for adoption by Canadian families. Since a high percentage of dogs in U.S. shelters are pit bull-type dogs, it would follow that a good number of the dogs finding their way to this country fall into that category. This was illustrated in the documentary with the arrival of a group of dogs facilitated by a Calgary-based group, BARC’s. Its spokesperson, Jeff Hogg, is featured in the broadcast.

You raised several journalistic policies you thought were breached in this production. The most relevant ones in this case are fairness, balance and impartiality. The statement on fairness focuses on the need to be even-handed in the treatment of a range of views, and balance calls for the relevant perspectives to be represented. There is also provision of the journalistic function of analyzing information, synthesizing it and to draw some conclusions, - based on facts and expertise. The caveat is that there is not to be promotion of a particular point of view on matters of public debate:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

Investigative programmes like The Fifth Estate generally work from a hypothesis and are required to diligently test it before producing a programme. If they believe data and information support the hypothesis, they use it, but they are never relieved of the responsibility of providing other relevant points of view and information to counter it. This is the policy outlining the unique features of investigative journalism:

Investigative journalism is a specific genre of reporting which can lead to conclusions and, in some cases, strong editorial judgments. A journalistic investigation is usually based on a premise but we do not broadcast an investigative report until we have ensured that the facts and evidence support the conclusions and judgments.

To achieve fairness, we diligently attempt to present the point of view of the person or institution being investigated.

That presented some major challenges in this particular case. There is always some debate about the relevance and robustness of particular studies. Various sides in a debate will tend to lean on that data which supports their position. This is true in spades in this case. I don’t think I have ever encountered quite so fierce a battle of studies and statistics. There is virtually nothing - which those who call for a ban of pit bulls, and those who oppose it - can agree upon. However, they do seem to agree that good data is hard to find, and that it is difficult to measure and may not be reliable. There are issues about the age of the data - and therefore the number of pit bulls in the population, the definition of the dog, and the severity or type of incident being counted and measured. There are claims and counterclaims about what is being counted, and if they are comparable. There is also the underlying issue of “no kill” policies - groups that believe dogs in shelters should never be euthanized. You mentioned a literature review by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Canadian Association as well. It is worth noting that both these organizations do not support breed-specific bans. However, it is also the case that there are questions about the studies and data they may be based upon. In the interests of informing Canadians to make their own decisions, there should have been some mention of these official positions. There seems to be a difference of perspectives and views, not only between advocates for the dog and advocates for its banning, but also between veterinarians and physicians who treat victims of attacks. I will address this later on in the review.

You questioned the mention of funding by a pit bull advocacy group for some studies. Those that conducted them may be professional as you state, however it is policy to mention funding sources of research so that citizens might come to their own conclusions about how they consider the information. When data is used that is put forward by those in favour of the ban, Mr. Kelley states that pro-ban groups use these figures.

You questioned the use of a medical study when the real experts are those who know about dog breeds and animal behaviour. This broadcast chose to look at the problem from a public safety perspective. The studies conducted by Dr. Michael Golinko, Director of Plastic Surgery at a children’s hospital in Arkansas, indicate that pit bulls are the type of dog most implicated in serious injury. It is reasonable for you to have concluded that there was only a single study backing Dr. Golinko’s conclusions. The documentary does not mention it, but in sharing the research conducted before the creation and airing of this piece, the journalists provided several other studies from medical facilities all over the United States which reflect the same conclusions as the Golinko studies. For example, one published in 2014, Morbidity of pediatric dog bites: a case series at a level one pediatric trauma center,” states that “pit bulls were most frequently responsible.” You pointed out that physicians and epidemiologists are not experts on the breed, and that dogs are erroneously identified as pit bull types when they are not. Weighing the difficulty of designating what constitutes a pit bull, or a pit-bull type also seems to depend on where you stand on the issue of bans. That question was put to the medical expert, Dr. Golinko, by Mr. Kelley:

MARK KELLEY (HOST)

Pit bull advocates dispute this. They point to an analysis done by the National Canine Research council, which is run by a pro pit bull foundation, that claims there is “no reliable evidence that demonstrates a link between breed and fatal dog bites.” They also claim pit bulls are routinely misidentified as the guilty party. (Interview): How were you able to identify whether these were in fact pit bulls that had attacked these victims?

DR. MICHAEL GOLINKO
That's a great question. It was pretty much by - because the majority of the biting dogs are either family dogs or a dog known to the family, meaning you know mom's boyfriend or ex-husband brings over a dog, grandma brings over a dog, it's typically a dog that the child is familiar with in most situations.

It would appear that there is not only a divide between those that support pit bulls and question the value of banning particular breeds, and those that come at the problem from a public health perspective. The data they have collected leads to a different view of the issue. The piece lays out those different perspectives.

You thought pit bull advocates were not given adequate opportunity to put forth their case. You stated that Ledy VanKavage, the senior legislative attorney for Best Friends Animal Society, was not given adequate air time to “finish a full thought.” I viewed the piece many times, and I do not agree with your conclusion. Ms. VanKavage comes across as an articulate and thoughtful spokesperson. When asked why any breed of dog might need a network to support them, she replied:

Well, I think they are the most misunderstood breed of dog there is. They're just dogs, they're not werewolves, you know? So, there's been so much hysteria involved with these dogs, and so much media hype. Actually even though I don't like to use this term, it’s one place where there probably is a lot of "fake news." [Laughs]. So that's why a lot of times they can't speak for themselves, so we need to get the truth out there...I believe some of it is media bias. I do. I think the hype has led people to have this perception of it and again I think a lot of it is because of media bias or fake news.

She is featured in the opening moment of the programme, and her response to criticism of the dogs is present throughout the item. She also pointed out concerns that the dogs involved in attacks are often misidentified.

It is a challenge to ensure balance when the images of children who were mauled are so disturbing, and the killing of a child is so fraught. The documentary did not overuse those images, and provided other positive views and images of pit bulls. Ms. VanKavage is seen with her own pet, and there are images of the dogs being rescued and brought to Canadian families. There are pit bull dog owners quoted about their comfort and confidence in their dogs:

I have a small daughter at home and I’ve never had any doubt in my mind that this dog would do anything to attack her or hurt her. He’s amazing.

The piece also featured videos promoting the value and virtues of the animals and well-known celebrities endorsing pit bull ownership. There was also an endorsement, via one of his videos, from Cesar Millan, a well-known and respected dog trainer. There were numerous images of people marching in favor of the dogs. The piece also noted the success of the political push to counter any breed-specific bans. As noted earlier, Jeff Hogg of a Calgary-based rescue group, is also a positive voice. The piece begins laying out the two positions clearly, in language that is reasonably neutral. It characterizes the arrival of the dogs in Canada as a “flight to freedom.”

These dogs have been flown in from a shelter in Ventura County, California. A dozen of them are pit bull type dogs. Few dogs are as deeply polarizing as the pit bull. A menace to some, simply misunderstood to others. And welcomed with open in arms in Calgary.

Mr. Williamson said the team chose to focus on the public health and safety issues around this dog, hence the use of the epidemiological studies. This was a legitimate journalistic choice, based on the analysis and research. There are opposing views to that perspective.

The programme also highlighted the extent of the organization and lobbying behind support of pit bulls. Given the fact that more of the dogs are finding their way to Canada, and the debate ongoing in Quebec, this is a legitimate framing of the issue. There is enough information for people watching to form their own views about the need to advocate for the breed and to form conclusions about what public policy should be.

You had a question about the accuracy of Mr. Kelley’s mention of the four types of dogs covered by Ontario’s Dog Owners’ Liability Act passed in 2005, which banned pit bulls. You said that Mr. Kelley stated that one of the four is the American Bully, which is not mentioned in the legislation. You are correct, the Ontario Act defines pit bull in this way:

  • A pit bull terrier
  • A Staffordshire bull terrier
  • An American Staffordshire terrier
  • An American pit bull terrier
  • A dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics substantially similar to any of those dogs.

Advocates for pit bulls state that the American Bully is a separate breed than an American pit bull, so the language is not always clear. Others say there is no clear distinction. This is another illustration of the lack of consensus on almost anything to do with this matter. The researcher on the story said the error occurred because the information was taken from a Quebec government information sheet that used the American “bully” designation instead of “terrier”. In the interests of precision and accuracy, the language used in the Ontario legislation should have been applied.

Mark Kelley noted at the start of this episode, “few dogs are as deeply polarizing as the pit bull.” There is a strong belief that this type of dog is misunderstood, mischaracterized and in need of protection. The official position of veterinarian professional associations aligns itself with that view. There is another view, shared by those who have experienced attacks and backed by physicians and others, that there is evidence to the contrary. Both those positions are present in this production. I noted some areas for improvement, but overall this documentary conformed to CBC journalistic policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman