A complainant said a CBC News story from Calgary unfairly singled out the pit bull to sensationalize the story and that the media has created the bias against these dogs. But CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin did not find any policy violation.

 By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

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.”


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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

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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.”

To continue reading this review, please go the CBC ombudsman’s website where it was originally published. 

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.