Media coverage helps perpetuate pit bull stereotype

Before I adopted Kimbo from Town Lake Animal Center, I unknowingly stereotyped pit bulls. I based those opinions partly on what I saw in different neighborhoods I lived in, but mostly on what I saw on TV and read in newspapers.

a pen rests on top of a reporter's notebook
Karen Delise writes  in her book “The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression” about how changes in the news media since the 1980s has affected the public’s perception of pit bulls. Courtesy morgueFile

The media often portrays pit bulls as monsters. After working as a journalist for the past six years, I understand how that could happen.

When the white pit bull mix with black spots came into my life in March, I joined Love-A-Bull and have recently become active as a volunteer.

The more I learn about pit bulls, the more I want to help dispel the myths that surround this beautiful, fun-loving dog.

Before Kimbo, I thought pit bulls were hyper dogs that are prone to aggression. Why else would they have such a bad reputation? Read about how Kimbo changed my mind about pit bulls.

The answer is complex, but it has to do with the popularity of pit bulls, socioeconomic factors, ignorance and the news industry. Karen Delise chronicles those factors in her book The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression.

Searching for pit bulls
Do an Internet search for the words “pit bull” and you’ll find countless articles about dog attacks, some fatal. Predictive searches, such as the one Google produces when searching for news articles, offer a snapshot of what is associated with any given search term.

Of the 10 suggestions shown above, six are associated with pit bull attacks and only one is sort of positive: pit bull rescue. Even then, there is a negative undertone, because a pit bull can’t be rescued unless it’s in trouble.

Google doesn’t hate pit bulls; the search engine simply shows the most frequent searches and can only offer what others have published online.

Tough business
I worked as a newspaper reporter and news producer for such news organizations as The Seattle Times, The Frederick (Maryland) News-Post and Community Impact Newspaper. Now I make and update web pages for a living.

I left newspapers because the pay was lousy, the hours were horrible and the work load was insane.

The two things I miss most are finding and telling stories, which I now do on my own.

It’s difficult to criticize an industry that helped me travel the nation, learn about so many different topics and find my voice as a writer. Many friends and respected colleagues continue to work for the media and they do good, meaningful work.

Mass media will always play a vital role informing and entertaining the public, but it’s a tough business.

a group of reporters cover a protest
Reporting the news is a tough job that requires unwavering ethics, intense dedication and a demanding schedule. Courtesy morgueFile

A reporter’s job is to gather and distribute information about current events, people and issues. It’s not easy and it’s not always the whole truth.

Reporters are paid to write what they find, not what they think about those findings.

I was assigned to cover such diverse topics as crime, technology, business and education. I knew very little about those subjects. Like all reporters, I often had to rely on what other people said.

The people reporters interview are not always the best sources. Sometimes, a key person may be unavailable for comment, often deliberately. Other times, the person being interviewed isn’t being honest.

There are language barriers, equipment failures and assignment changes — all before a reporter even begins to write the story.

Dwindling revenues have forced many newsrooms to either slash their staff or close altogether. These days, one person often does the job that three or four people used to do.

A reporter may need to tell a story in 300 words or 25 seconds. Sometimes copy editors make changes without the reporter’s knowledge. Other times, an editor will change the focus of the story to make it more interesting.

It frustrated me to report on a story, then see how a tiny fragment of that story actually made it to the public.

Selling stories
The most surprising thing I learned about the news industry is how it makes money. I thought selling newspapers paid the bills, but, even when newspapers were profitable, advertisers are the ones that pay salaries.

Reputable news outlets do not let advertisers sway coverage, but the bottom line depends on making people pay attention.

News organizations make money based on the volume of eyeballs on the page or screen. They sell those captive eyes to advertisers. The more engaging the story, the hotter the sell.

a pitbull stands in a yard surrounded by dog toys
Pit bulls are among the most abused, misunderstood dogs. Courtesy morgueFile

When you drive by a road-side car wreck, do you slow down to look? It’s an instinct mammals developed to protect them from danger. Gazelles stare as lions eat one of the herd, a brutal reminder to be swift.

We want details about that fatal pile up on the nearby highway or the wildfire that destroyed countless acres of landscape. News people know most of us can’t help but gawk and use that fact to sell stories.

Add a muscular, misunderstood dog in the wrong hands and you’ve got a story people will follow for a long time.

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