June 14, 2007

The power of parroting

Over the years, a number of well-meaning people, who have tried to do their own research about "pit bulls", have said to me, "But I go on the Internet, search for 'pit bull attack', and there are thousands of web pages. If there are that many attacks, there must be something wrong with these dogs."

This reminds me a little of the SARS "epidemic" that happened in Ontario in 2003. Without a doubt, there was a bad outbreak of a communicable virus that nobody had seen before and nobody understood.

What amazed me, however, was the impression outside Ontario, particularly in the United States, of a locked-down, mass-hysteria situation. One American tourist who I helped after a car accident begged me not to call an ambulance because she didn't want to get SARS!

The international media reports had a devastating effect on tourism in this province and, even four years later, we're still recovering from that. Meanwhile, in Toronto, the epicentre of the virus, we were all walking around, going to work, living our lives without any serious concerns. Yes, if we went to a hospital emergency ward, we had to wear masks. But, for most of us, that was the extent of the effect.

To those who were exposed to the virus, it had a huge impact on their lives and I am not minimizing that whatsoever, in the same way that being bitten or attacked by a dog has a permanent and traumatic effect on the individual victim and families. But the general population was still able to realize that the chances of contracting SARS, even at its height, were miniscule.

The difference between our daily reality and the media portrayal, however, was huge.

I was reading the Globe and Mail this week and saw a tiny article about Bjorn Borg having to drop out of the Liverpool International tennis tournament on Monday because of a dog bite he received on the weekend.

Here's the text of the article from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070612.DIGE12-1/TPStory

Liverpool, England -- A severe dog bite led Bjorn Borg to pull out of his first grass-court match in 26 years. The five-time Wimbledon champion was bitten on his right leg by a German shepherd when he tried to pull it away from his golden retriever at his home in Sweden over the weekend. Borg, who was treated at a Stockholm hospital, was told not to put any weight on the leg for at least six weeks. He had been scheduled to play 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash at the Liverpool International tournament this week.

So, I did a Google search for "Bjorn Borg dog bite Liverpool". 870 hits over a period of two days (June 11 and 12). The vast majority of these hits were from mainstream media newspapers in every corner of the world.

My impression, if I were to trust only the search results, is that this was a major event, about which dozens, if not hundreds, of reporters had written articles.

As I looked more closely at the search results, however, I realized that there were only, as far as I could tell, three unique articles. The remainder of the results were exact, word-for-word, repetitions of those three original articles. So, from those three reports, came hundreds (and I'm sure eventually thousands) of Internet search hits.

That is the danger of just depending on numbers and statistics, without carefully considering the source and the duplication.

Each of the editors of these hundreds of newspapers throughout the world looked at this story and made a personal, individual determination whether that particular story, with those particular details, would be of interest to their particular readers, in their particular part of the world. Will my readers be interested in this and (for many editors) will it sell newspapers?

Regardless of whether you are researching "pit bull" attacks, dog bites in general, SARS, global warming, or underwater basket weaving, I think it's a good idea to keep this in mind.

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