Monday, April 03, 2006

Student journalist gets one thing right

An obscure article by Katie Bradford in the Henderson State University Oracle online newspaper dared to cover the topic of pit bulls and dangerous dog legislation. But her research led her astray, and she ended up making several false statements about the breed-type, including the persistent myth of the locking jaw.

Read the original article here.

Needless to say, she got feedback. And how. Her next article carried an undertone of irritation and frustration. She loved dogs and didn't believe pit bulls should be banned, she had tried to do research, and she had even solicited help via email from a couple of experts (didn't name names) on pit bulls and dog attacks, to receive no reply until after she had already published the article. Thus her article contained glaring factual errors despite her best efforts (or so she says).

Read the second article here.

But this is really beside the point. What I found interesting was one of her comments thus:
"Self-proclaimed canine authorities won’t leave me alone. I talked to several of them, and the more I listened, the more I realized that none of them could agree on a damn thing."

Bradford may have gotten a lot wrong in her article (and in her second article she still persisted with the locking jaw thing), but this is one statement she got hands-down, 100%, abso-freakin'-lutely correct. Wanna learn the truth about pit bulls in less than a week? It's not gonna happen. In fact, learning about pit bulls is nearly impossible unless you have months, even years, to devote to the study.

Experts about pit bulls conflict over just about every aspect of the breed-type. One expert will tell you that pit bulls make fabulous guard dogs. Another expert will tell you that they are so friendly to strangers that they are worthless for protection. One expert will tell you that pit bull jaws are super-strong and that they do not let go once they bite down (like a milder version of a locking jaw), and other experts will scoff at that notion. One expert will tell you the pit bull is highly resistant to pain, or that pit bulls get a "rush" from pain, while another expert will roll their eyes at the idea. Some pit bull enthusiasts love to assert that the pit bull can whip any other breed (or even species) in a fight ("purely hypothetically, of course, ahem") while others rub their foreheads and try to explain that such claims are merely a stereotype that certain ignoramuses perpetuate in order to boost their own egos. Some people say the pit bull is unparallelled as a companion dog, some say it is the most dangerous and vicious breed-type, and still others (like myself) say it is just one breed-type out of many, with a few special considerations (as any breed will have) but nothing extreme one way or the other.

I won't even discuss the zillions of different ways that novice pit bull owners are told to care for their pit bulls. What is the right way to raise and care for and train a dog? Do you use clicker training, positive reinforcement, choke chains, electric collars, treats, praise, punishment, "time out", or what? Knowing the "right way" to train a dog is hard regardless of the breed of dog you own, and even harder if you are a novice pit bull owner. The pit bull stereotype falsely singles out the breed as requiring special training techniques. I can't tell you how many emails I get from novice pit bull owners who wonder if there's a special food or training regimen or exercise regimen for pit bulls.

No matter where you go to learn about pit bulls, finding a straight answer is tough. Bradford is not alone. There are probably tens of thousands of people out there who truly believe the pit bull can lock its jaws. There are millions of people out there who believe the breed-type is fantastically different from all other breeds, whether to a positive extreme or a negative. One thing is for sure. The pit bull is set apart from all other breeds in one respect - our society's treatment of it. The myths and stereotypes that cling to the pit bull are hard to get past when you're just trying to do a quick journalistic piece - a snappy bit of research - on the breed-type.

Unfortunately, the more frequently the myths and stereotypes make it into the media, the more likely we are to see it again, as writers re-use (as Bradford did) these myths from other pieces of journalistic nonsense, gleaned from still other misinformed sources. Bradford may have learned a lesson about fact checking (or perhaps not, judging from the tone and excuses in her second article) , but the myths she presented as fact are now out in public for yet another "journalist" to "borrow" from. What's worse, her failure to retract the errors in her second article (putting quotes around the words "locking jaw" does not correct the factual error that she is presenting, the myth that pit bulls do not unclamp their jaws once they bite down) only legitimizes the myths in the eyes of readers.

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