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Media analysis: Wildlife get the blame, but people start conflict

Media outlets often paint frightening encounters with wildlife as something that happens to people – even when the articles themselves highlight that humans likely caused the conflict.

CTV News exemplified this in a recent ‘bear attack’ story:

‘I did think I was going to die’: Hiker recovering after being attacked by a bear in Riding Mountain National Park

The article is written in a typical inverted pyramid fashion: the most relevant information (typically containing the 5Ws) at the top, filtering down to less important information as the copy continues. It can provide revealing insight into a journalist’s mind, too. Consider the basic structure of this article:

  • Paragraph 1-9 is primarily a retelling of the harrowing incident from the perspective of the hiker;
  • Paragraph 15 the hiker acknowledges she’s been running the trail with her dogs all summer (whether they were on/off leash or with her at the time is not mentioned at any point);
  • Paragraph 17 the journalist notes (for the first time) that Parks Canada put no dogs, no bicycles and group travel only restrictions in place three days before the incident took place (specifically to reduce conflict with wildlife);
  • Paragraph 25 the hiker acknowledges she doesn’t think the bear meant to harm her or was aggressive
  • Paragraph 29 (the very last sentence in the 797-word article): “Dogs should also remain on a leash, as Parks Canada says they can provoke defensive behaviours in bears.”

The literal last line of the article is a possible explanation of the entire incident (the article does not specify if the hiker had her dogs, though she states she frequently ran the trail with them); yet nine paragraphs at the top outline the fear felt, the upsetting injuries, and the difficult journey to the hospital. Further, it isn’t until halfway through the article that Parks Canada had put restrictions in place on this very trail three days before the incident took place.

Why wasn’t this information presented at the top of the article?

Women recovering following black bear attack in northern B.C.

This article from Vancouver is Awesome also leads with two women being “attacked” even though the second sentence outlines that their dogs instigated a defensive encounter from a startled bear. Consider this in another context: “Man attacked in bar fight after he punched someone.”

It’s not wrong; it’s also not accurate. Why is the word attacked being used when clearly, the bear was defending themselves from a threat in their home?

Coyotes can’t seem to catch a break when harassed by dogs and people, either. In a CBC article, this becomes apparent.

Woman, dogs bitten in encounter with pack of 6 aggressive coyotes, pet owners say

This article paints coyotes as the aggressors when the facts point to the more likely reality that they were victims of curious (and potentially threatening) dogs.

The witness/dog walker in this case notes she was walking four large dogs – at least two of them off-leash – and they ran into the bush without her. Following this, one returned, trailed by a pair of coyotes.

“I could tell that they were not approaching to be friendly. They were on a mission. I felt like they were hungry,” she said.

The dog walker told CBC she “ran to collect and control the loose dogs while also trying to phone [her friend].”

Upon the friend’s arrival, two dogs were still missing.

“I ran as fast as [I] could through this thick brush … and ended up getting in there and kicking the coyotes as hard as I could to get them away from the dog,” the friend told CBC. Her husband then arrived as well, yelling causing the pack (now consisting of six coyotes, CBC reported) to disperse. One of the off-leash dogs turned and gave chase.

No one was badly injured – one dog was bit on a leg, another on the nose and the friend on her leg. For anyone who has witnessed or broken up a dog fight, this can subjectively be considered a mild incident.

A WildSafe B.C. spokesperson told CBC that the dog walker was in the wrong place at the wrong time; whether or not they indicated that the off-leash dogs likely caused the entire incident is not included in the article.

It should also be noted that the dogs involved were a chocolate lab (weight range of 55-80 lbs (30 to 36 kg)) and three coonhounds (weight range of 45-100 lbs (20 to 45 kg) depending on type). Coonhounds have long been used as hunting dogs, chasing down their target for a following hunter. For context, eastern coyotes range in weight from 22 to 41 lbs (10 to 18.6 kg)), though with long legs and huge coats, they often look much larger.

Here’s the math: a minimum of two (at least) 45-pound hunting dogs ran into the bush and came back trailed by two (at least) 22-pound coyotes. Who, exactly, was attacking whom?

Questions Remain

None of this is about blaming the victims; while they may have made mistakes that led to these incidents, they were without a doubt upsetting and frightening incidents. Particularly as pet owners, we can empathize with the fear and trauma of seeing your pet injured or in a potentially life-threatening situation. This isn’t about the victims: it’s about those who told their stories.

Data about how people read, what is read and for how long is well known by media publications. Entire companies exist just to track that kind of data; Google even provides a free option. The impact of media’s use of chosen words, photos and even placement of a news article is well documented throughout history. (Forget speaking moistly: Robert Stanfield dropped a ball and it may have cost him an election.)

Reporters, editors and other media representatives know that their choice of words, the structure of a story and what is/isn’t included can influence the world. And after reviewing some of these articles that paint wildlife as perpetrators in conflict against them, we’re left with what is often the hardest question to answer: why?

Michael Howie

Michael Howie is an international award-winning journalist whose background includes work for Torstar, Metroland, and other magazines and publications. He is the producer and host of The Young Defenders podcast, host of the popular Defender Radio podcast, the writer of The Fur-Bearers’ blogs, and contributes to various online publications on behalf of The Fur-Bearers. He is also the primary manager of The Fur-Bearers' social media platforms. Michael has successfully managed a political campaign, worked with various non-profits as a strategic communicator, and performs in the popular End of Times and Other Bothers improvised comedy podcast. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

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