Reading past fear: how to de-sensationalize the news

A Western coyote
Is this Western coyote watching or stalking? Watching is something we can verify, but stalking implies intent that we can't know. Photo by hartmanc10 / Getty Images

Open your web browser on any given day and you may see a story about a terrifying, traumatizing or tantalizing wildlife encounter. But when you remove the adverbs and opinions from these news stories, the true story is a fair bit more simplistic.

The media sensationalizes stories about wildlife and wildlife encounters in a documentable manner (Alexander & Quinn, 2012). While modern media plays a significant role in this, media consumers have the responsibility to now separate fact from fiction – and more importantly, fact from sensationalism.

By looking at common elements in sensationalized stories, The Fur-Bearers has identified four steps that average consumers can utilize to break out of the sensationalized news cycle and get to the facts behind the story:

  1. Experience is based on perception. Riding ones bicycle past a coyote at night, who seemingly is chasing and making noise at you, is certainly terrifying. But it’s not a fact – it’s a perception. Consider this: a dog who barks and walks toward someone who is afraid of dogs is vicious; a dog who barks and walks toward someone who understands the basics of dog behaviour is likely excited, curious or even cautious – but not vicious. That doesn’t mean that the cyclist shouldn’t be afraid or didn’t experience what they said they experienced. It means that we, as consumers reading this coverage, need to remember that their experience (significant fear) is based on their perception, not the reality of what the coyote was thinking/doing.
  2. Drop the descriptors. The best example of unnecessary or inappropriate descriptors is ‘stalking.’ Numerous species of native wildlife will keep an eye on people as they move through the animals’ territory; some species will even follow along out of curiosity or caution. But the word ‘stalk’ implies pursuit of prey (and is one of the definitions of the word). Did a coyote stalk a person through a forest, or did they simply follow along, to see if they had food, were a threat, or were just passing through? It is a choice made by media to include this word, despite its often being inaccurate.
  3. Who started it? It is common to read in a news article that off-leash dogs harassed coyotes or bears, then have the journalist (or copy editor) write that the coyotes or bears ‘attacked’ the dogs. If this were a human-based crime story, using this language would be libelous and subject to legal action.
  4. Just the facts. Who, what, when, where, why and how can be answered in most news articles. If you remove the experiential, descriptors and opinions, you may find that what’s left are the plain, simple facts.

If you want to learn more about media literacy, sensationalism, and effectively communicating issues about animals, we strongly recommend checking out Animals & Media, a resource for advocates, journalists and everyone else. If you’re interested in media literacy for younger Canadians, check out this resource from Media Smarts.

Effective communication and unbiased media is an essential part of a democracy; learning how to read past the fear can help make you a better advocate, and strong part of that democracy.

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Established in 1953, The Fur-Bearers is a charitable, non-partisan organization whose goals are to end the commercial fur trade and promote solutions for wildlife coexistence in communities. Your donation is tax-deductible. Charitable registration number: 130006125RR0002

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