The Great Pit Bull Debate: when all was said and done....
Trista Lashley's pit bull shares a tender family moment
Notes by: Forrest Carr, KGUN9 News Director
I have to say, the viewer reaction preceding and following our 9 ON Your Side investigation into the effectiveness of dog bans is the damndest thing I've ever seen. And I've been doing this for 32 years. Many posters said they feel an attack on their dogs is an attack on their families. I believe it.
Starting three days before the investigation aired, viewers took to our Facebook page attacking and defending the upcoming story, based solely on the on-air spots they'd seen promoting it. The promo featured an announcer's voice that might be fairly described as mildly menacing, one brief audio clip from a pit bull supporter, one brief audio clip from a pit bull opponent, and then concluded with a promise that KGUN9 News would explore the facts about bans on pit bulls.
For the next three days viewers engaged in an on-line brawl, attacking KGUN9 and each other. Pit bull supporters posted pictures of adorable animals and asked, "Why do you hate me?" Pit bull opponents put up photos of mangled mauling victims. Pit fans accused KGUN9 of unprofessional, unethical, sensationalistic, biased reporting.
And that wasn't all. The buzz was even louder on pit bull related pages all over Facebook. Some tried to organize a protest to take place at the station on the night of the story. One posted my picture personally and called me the coward who is leading KGUN9's effort to kill pit bulls.
All this for a story that had not even aired.
The story finally aired last night (Thursday, February 2). Missing was the ominous voice heard in the promo. Present was what the promo promised, an investigation examining the available facts about whether bans on certain breeds of dog, including pit bulls, actually do what they're supposed to do, which is to improve public safety. The investigation found that the results of those bans are inconclusive at best.
After the story ran, the debate only intensifed. Many viewers felt the investigation was fair and thanked us for that. One viewer suggested that people should be lining up to apologize to KGUN9 for all the pre-publication attacks. Others didn't see it that way, accusing KGUN9 of deliberately whipping up a frenzy through a sensationalistic promo, in the cheap pursuit of ratings. Still others thought we had rushed to edit the story at the last minute to water it down, for the purpose of toadying up to the attackers. Others were even more blunt, accusing us of selling out and siding outright with the pit bull advocates.
The personal attacks continued, too. One viewer demanded to know why KGUN9 only responds to positive viewer comments. Another accused me personally of "retaliating" against negative comments.
As a result of all this, our Facebook site is filled with page after page after page of posts -- hundreds, maybe thousands of them - more than we've ever seen on any story at any time, including immigration and ethnic studies.
In our 9 On Your Side Viewers' Bill of Rights, we promise to hold ourselves accountable to you, our viewers. That means we have to be transparent in our editorial decisions. So, I'm going to tell you exactly what happened here -- why we decided to do this story, the editing process, and how and why we respond to viewer commentary.
At KGUN9 we make a point of covering hot-button issues that have people talking. Some of these are issues that no one else will touch because they are too controversial. We touch them. In some cases, we dive into them up to our earlobes. In part, we determine which issues are "hot" by taking note of what kind of viewer response we get when we do a story or web poll.
When a pit bull mauled its owner to death last summer, our coverage provoked a high volume of viewer feedback. We decided to pursue the story further for that reason. That follow-up in November generated even more feedback. Further, it was clear that in pursuing the question about whether pit bulls might be dangerous, we had left a key issue unaddressed: specifically, the issue of breed specific bans. Our story had had touched on such bans but had not explored their effectiveness. Most of the viewers who wrote in about the story were reacting as if the investigation had been all about such bans (it wasn't) and as if KGUN9 had come out in favor of such a ban (we hadn't.) So, we decided to do one more story exploring that issue -- hence last night's story.
Once we commit to a high-profile story, it goes to our promotions department for marketing. Those producers generate a series of TV spots - typically, one commercial-length spot and a series of smaller spots - with the goal of getting you interested in the story. The news department's role is to make sure the spot accurately captures what the story is about, so that we don't promise something the story won't deliver. Those spots began airing at the beginning of this week.
Meanwhile, newsroom managers (myself and our executive producer) approved the first draft of Tammy Vo's script. Our role was to make sure that the story was properly researched, accurate, fair and inclusive of a viewpoints from all sides, which is a level of performance we know we can expect from Tammy.
Tammy completed her final video edit fo the story on Tuesday. At that time, we judged the final running time to be a bit too long. I then cut out a small section at the end of the story devoted to pit bull bans at home owners' associations. The excised material included one viewpoint in favor of such bans and one viewpoint against them. Both viewpoints hit the cutting room floor. In the course of editing, Tammy also corrected an audio mis-read she had made in one of her voice-overs. That edit is noticeable, if you listen carefully, on the final version of the story.
None of these edits was made in response to viewer feedback.
Viewer comments began hitting our Facebook page at the beginning of the week. I responded to some of them directly. I also wrote a viewers' Voice column listing highlighted comments and responding to those.
You can look far and wide and you will not find another TV station that responds to viewers like KGUN9 does. It's sort of an experiment in journalism, one that's been written about in some journalism articles and textbooks. Some of our colleagues in journalism applaud the effort. Others think we're crazy to invite viewers behind the curtains of the editorial process in this fashion. For myself, I'd say the jury is still out. I do think we owe viewers an explanation for what we do, but viewer feedback can be brutal at times, as this week has shown.
In responding to viewers I attempt not to be defensive, but to explain our actions in light of our stated values, as posted in our Viewers' Bill of Rights. If our actions don't match our values, I will apologize and make amends if possible. If they do match our values, I'll try to show why. In some cases I will strongly challenge viewers. This is not meant as "retaliation." It is offered in the belief that viewers would rather have us engage them than to blow them off with a generic "thank you for writing" style of dismissal that says nothing.
Now to the accusation that the story was just a cheap ratings ploy. Like it or not, our homework at KGUN9 gets graded every three months through a process called "sweeps," which is the period of time that audience levels get measured. Investigations and other special projects take a lot of time and effort. So yes, we do put our best foot forward during ratings, where it will count the most. And it is certainly true, as I said, that we pick topics we think viewers care about. The issue of pit bulls clearly is one such topic.
But we also pick those topics for journalistic reasons. In our journalistic judgment, this topic was (1) of high interest; (2) of high importance to the community; and (3) needed further exploration.
What we don't do and will never do is to deliberately shade a story or slant it in one direction or another to please this group or that group, no matter how large or vocal the group is. The one thing you ought to be able to count on journalists to do is to present the facts without an agenda. You can argue about how good a job we do of that; all of our stories are fair game for criticism. But our goal is to present the facts to the best of our ability and let the chips fall where they may.
That is the story of how this investigation came about and why we did what we did. Those who know me know that this explanation is from the heart and sincere. Some who don't know me may dismiss it as yet another attempt to spin the ratings and polish our image. Take it for what you will. But please do at least give us credit for being willing to face our viewers, regardless of what you think about our actions and responses.
That's my view as leader of our newsroom. Below are some of yours, taken from our Facebook page.
Michael Wayne Adams: "This is KGUNs feeble attempt to draw ratings, that's why they keep going back to the topic. Clearly it's working."
Kyle Jensen: "I know I'm never watching this news station again until they make a public apology for trashing the best dog breed there is."
Meagan Krumpholz: "KGUN 9 might not be actually for a breed ban but they are fueling the fire for their own ratings.... I don't think your story was either positive nor negative, just pointless. We all get what BSL is, you compared the statistics of dog bites and Pit Bull bites to only cities that have BSL. You talked to one owner, who did not even have an American Pit Bull Terrier. So maybe you didn't say 'Pit Bulls are bad' but you sure didn't point out anything good about them."
Cynthia M Adam: "I watched the segment and was relieved to see a fairly balanced report. I am glad that the positive side of these dogs was shown alongside the few negative comments. I do wish there was a way the government could regulate the backyard breeders and puppy mills. Perhaps you could do a story on that as well as looking into dog fighting. I am pro pittie dogs after fostering several in my home state of Illinois. The four I fostered have been adopted into loving families."
Matt Pimple: "KGUN 9 not on my side, nothing about sympathy or condolences for the victims or their families. Wow. A little disappointed to say the least. As you are well aware of info on cities with successful BSL. Oh, but that would cost money. Far be it to put a human life before a dogs, any dog."
Ingrid Keller: "I felt the story was great! You presented both sides of the argument well and left the viewers with the job to decide how they felt about the idea of a ban. A very good fact pointed out (food for thought): any dog is really capable of attacking but its the fact that the american staffordshire, aka pit, has one of the strongest bites of all breeds. I think an insurance liability could possibly be a good idea just to keep irresponsible owners in check."
Jaloney Caldwell: "I thought they did not present the facts on bans honestly. DEATHS, Dismemberments and mutilations go down after a ban -- who cares about normal bites that don't even break the skin? Recording bites is not the issue. If it were just bites, we would not be debating here. Pitbulls don't bite, they maul."
Sarah Laucks Belksma: "I want to say I am happy to see how this was reported. I am an owner of a wonderful pit bull who has a gental demeanor and she is not a pet but a family member and I would hate to see a ban on such beautiful creatures because of bad owners. In the defense of responsible dog owners I need to point out the way your station was advertising this segment was wrong and you brought the reactions of people on yourselves. KGUN9 made themselves look like they were against this wonderful dogs by the way this story was being promoted."
Steven Michael: "The problem is, despite the neutrality of the segment that blindsided all the 'omg pitbulls are so cute' crowd, they won't be happy until KGUN is renamed 'Pitbulls Are Sweet News Organization.'"
Shiloh Walkosak: "This piece appears to have been promoted the way it was specificly to garner just the reaction that it recieved. KGUN is well aware of the emotional nature of the 'pit bull' issue. One need only take a brief scroll through the KGUN's FB page to notice the incredible increase in traffic to the page the minute the ominous promos began to air. Indeed it has been the only story anyone is commenting on/about. This is not lost on the KGUN new directors anymore than it is lost on the pit bull advocates and supporters. KGUN in effect has had their cake and they are eating it too."
Forrest Tlustos: "How much editing was done in the last few days to save face? There were a few obvious cuts. Good thing the pit community does stand up for what we believe in otherwise the 'media' would be able to run rampant spreading fear and discrimination in the name of ratings."
Monica Ybarra: "Well, I wasn't disappointed. It would be nice if you guys could show the GOOD thing about pit bulls though :)"
Kim's Canine College: "It is upsetting for me to listen to my local news channel play advertising spots that sensationalize the topic of pit bulls in the city of Tucson. What I have found most upsetting in regards to this scheduled broadcast is the response from your news director Forrest Carr on your website. It was unprofessional and retaliatory in nature. If you wanted to start a heated debate you won. Unfortunately, you lost a viewer in me and I suspect many more in Southern Arizona."
Sarah Laucks Belksma: "I read that as well and was very upset at what he said. They say and do what they want to sell these stories. They can dish it out but can't take it. They brough these responses on themselves by the way they promoted this story."
Amanda Howard: "THANK YOU! Thank you for proving ME wrong. I no longer think your station is biased and for BSL. Thank you for PUBLICIZING BSL NOT WORKING! Now Tucson, let's get our current laws reinforced and keep it peaceful!"
Jay Bork: "So your segment on breed specific legislation was pretty fair. I think you may have misled many of us, with your story teasers, leading up to the actual airing of it. If that was intentional for ratings shame on you, if not, you may want to rethink the way lead in to these segments, are publicized."
Dan Crescent: "I think a lot of people got awful quiet. There should be a line of them apologizing to KGUN for their unwarranted attack."
Lynn Trujillo: "THANK YOU Kgun for reporting on BOTH sides of the fence for the highly anticipated report regarding BSL on pit bulls. You did report fairly and accurately. As, I did jump to conclusions based off your 'teaser commercial' alone, I did assume that your report was going to be, yet again, a biased report like your previous 2 reports on pits. I will apologize for that assumption. As like all dogs, any dog can bite, it's just a shame this loving breed is targeted like in so many other countries."
Dick Somes: "As usual, KGUN9 has done a fine job of balanced reporting on the question of pit bull bans. Keep up the good work."
Adrienne Ticer: "Thank you, KGUN 9 for showing the real facts regarding pit bulls and BSL. I really appreciate the research from reputable resources. :)"
Trista Lashley: "Kgun9 is NOT on your side! And they are definitely 1 sided! All you ever do is talk badly about pit bulls! And YES ANY dog can bite! It doesn't matter the damage a dog bite is a dog bite! Stop bullying pit bulls only! This is ridiculous!"
Dawn James (via KGUN9.com): "I just read the much anticipated piece. I thought it was objective and unbiased but more importantly, you did a fantastic job of giving pit bull advocates an opportunity to show everyone what irrational over-emotional kooks they are. Bravo!"
If you haven't had enough of this particular debate already, you can post your comments here, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or post them on our Facebook page (which allows longer comments).