Mixed messages from the media can make effective communication about wildlife issues more difficult, as evidenced by a story out of Estes Park in Colorado.
Yahoo! News, which drew their copy from a People article and footage from CBS in Colorado, posted the confusing information on September 30, 2019. The facts of the story, as derived from the multiple sources, are:
- Visitors to the park surrounded a male elk;
- It is mating season for elk, and notices about giving them space were issued;
- The group of people caused the elk to feel distressed and communicate as such (by pushing threats back the way elk do);
- Intervention was required in one instance by a park worker to protect the visitors from the consequence of their actions.
However, the headline and terminology used in the article indicate otherwise:
- Park Supervisor Uses Pickup Truck to Protect Tourists from Charging Elk in Colorado (headline)
- “an Oklahoma couple caught the attack on camera,”
- “The video shows the elk charging at a group of people.”
- “the elk was initially aggravated by a camera’s flash, and then proceeded to charge at a woman.”
From a media perspective, this is akin to writing, “home invader attacked by man whose home he was invading.” It isn’t wrong, but it also isn’t accurate: using the term attack instead of defends changes the tone of the article. The elk at Estes Park was an individual being assailed by multiple potential threats and responded well within reason – if they had been a human.
Why it matters
We know people respond viscerally to media sensationalism, and we know that how people feel can affect how they respond to the world around them (An Analysis of the Use of Sensational Content Within The Media And The Desensitizing Effects it has on Audiences, Lowe, 2016). It can be postulated that sensationalist news on wildlife like coyotes also impact how decisions are made, even by trained law enforcement officers.
News coverage is important – it affects entire communities’ views and actions on elections, the economy and daily activities. When trust in the media is eroded, communities can suffer. For example, the message that park visitors are directly responsible for the elk's behaviour is buried in much of the coverage. His story - the one of an elk being harassed in his home by outside visitors - is lost in the excitement of an 'attack'.
What you can do
- Challenge pronouns. Calling animals ‘it’ takes away their individuality and makes them less than. If a gender is unknown, the neutral term ‘they’ is acceptable.
- Challenge sources. ‘Follow the money’ remains strong advice: consider who’s being quoted and what motivations may be propelling them (such as trophy hunters and trappers commenting on wildlife issues without citations).
- Challenge citations. If they say it’s from a study, ask for the study. If there are links to another article, follow the links and see if they’re reporting accurately.
- Challenge ourselves. It’s easy to click like, share or comment on an article on social media; but, unless we properly read them first, we don’t know if they’re reputable – and clicking, sharing, or commenting causes social media platforms to show that article to more people. We must be responsible consumers of media.
The two most important things we can do for the animals regarding media is to talk about the stories with compassion and critical thinking in our communities, and to reward the media who do a good job of reporting with our time (and sometimes a kind word).
And, of course, to always remember that when we’re in a park, we’re in someone else’s home.
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