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For decades societies around the world have had their ďso-calledĒ vicious breed of dog. From the Doberman Pinscher, to the Rottweiler, to the German Shepherd, specific breeds of dog have been stereotyped, scrutinized, mystified and rigorously publicized in the newspapers and media. Myths about breeds spread through the media causing much of the general public to believe these fallacies as fact. The Doberman Pinscher is one breed that has fallen prey to this as its popularity rose in the late 70ís. Two enduring myths were that Dobermanís would turn on their owners or that their brains were too large for their skulls, causing them to go crazy (Jessup, 1995). As this breed began to suffer from public outrage, resulting in breed bans, focus began to shift to other breeds. This has been the scenario for many years. The banning of a specific breed just causes individuals to move on to other breeds (HSUS, 2006). This is the case now for Rottwielers and Pit Bulls. Two decades ago, they attracted little to no public concern, due to the Dobermanís vilification. Today, the myths continue with the Pit Bull type breeds. Arguably the most popular being the locking jaw myth which is frequently reported on and warned about. But, what the swelling brain was to the Doberman breed, the locking jaw is to the Pit Bull; just a fad panic, as no canine possesses a locking jaw. Many other myths exist about the Pit Bull breed of dogs, all of which have little or no scientific proof behind them, but as history with other breeds has shown, the media continues to overzealously report it, causing the frenzy to grow.
Along with myths and fallacies reported over the years, the media also overzealously zero in on specifically negative and extreme incidents, leading the public to believe incorrectly. They often fail to provide circumstances surrounding events, meaningful statistical information and comparisons to other, much too common, incidents. In a case study published in the Journal of Human Animal Studies, respondents debunked press coverage and media reports of Pit Bull related stories as being selective, sensationalized, having a lack of objectivity and failing to provide context (Twining, Arluke and Patronek, 2000). Another study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, states that both in Australia and in Britain, the Pit Bull breed was introduced to the public by the media with lurid and sensational accounts of its background, capabilities, and character. This character, once given, has set solidly in the minds of the public, the media themselves, and authorities at various levels of government (The Economist, 1987, 1991; Fielding, 1991; Collier, 2006). Statistical information is also something that is shaped for the story at hand and often times misleading to the general public. Several studies have been done to try and estimate the number of fatal dog attacks, per year, in the U.S. The Humane Society of the United States (2006) states that it is imperative that the dog population in the community be understood. To simply pull numbers of attacks does not give an accurate representation of a breed necessarily. For example, by reviewing a study that states there have been five attacks by Golden Retrievers in a community and ten attacks by Pit Bulls in that same community, it would appear that pit bulls are more dangerous. However, if you look at the dog populations in that community and learn that there are 50 Golden Retrievers present and 500 Pit Bulls, then the Pit Bulls are actually the safer breed statistically. Regardless of this imperative understanding, the media continues to pull only numbers broken down by breed. One of the most commonly cited statistic (Sacks, Lockwood, Hornreich and Sattin, 1996) states that in updated data, from 1989 through 1994, Pit Bulls and Pit Bull mixed breeds were still the most commonly reported breed , involved in 24 (28.6%) of 84 deaths. But, it does not compare that number to an estimate of the number of Pit Bulls in the communities where the deaths occurred, nor in the U.S. In addition to the statistical information, which does estimate other breeds that cause death, the media seldom focuses on these other breeds. A recent Tulsa, Oklahoma news story from KTUL, News Channel 8 (2006), broke the norm of reporting on Pit Bull attacks, and asked the question; are Pit Bulls more dangerous than any other specific breed of dog? Its story stated that according to the Centers for Disease Control, from 1993 to 1998 Rottweilers were blamed for 30 deaths, German Shepherds, Huskies, malamutes, Doberman Pinschers, Chow Chows, Great Danes, Saint Bernards and many other crossbred types of dogs were responsible for deaths in the U.S. Even a 4 pound Pomeranian in California attacked and killed a six-week old baby in 2000. Unfortunately, media coverage like that of KTULís is not presented enough to change the embedded images and information society has been given over the years. Furthermore, the negative reports keep coming with no comprehensive statistics, background information or related comparisons to allow the public to formulate their own educated opinion.
The purpose of this study is to try and link negative media and news coverage of Pit Bulls and Pit Bull type breeds to societyís negative views and /or general dislike of these dogs. As the animal scientist, animal behaviorist, HSUS, and many other animal advocates continue to try and educate the public about these issues, media relations continue to be in the forefront of the battle. I believe, their personification of the Pit Bull breed has been etched in the minds of the general public and if my theory is correct, I hope this research will help begin to erase it.
Data were collected from undergraduate students, in a General Psychology class, at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri. The class consisted of 48 students, both male and female. This class also had a high ratio of non-traditional students.
There were three separate news article packets used in this experiment. The packets each included a cover/instruction sheet, a news article and a questionnaire sheet containing 13 questions. Each article was about a dog attack in a small town, where a four year old boy was injured. Two of the articles were written exactly the same, with the exception of the breed of dog (Irish Setter vs. Pit Bull) and the picture displayed (Irish Setter vs. Pit Bull). Both of these articles used graphic and explicit words and phrases and additionally, the Pit Bull in the picture was growling and showing its teeth. The third article also had a Pit Bull in the picture, but it was not showing aggression. This article was set up and written the same as the other two, with the exception of the graphic and explicit words and phrases.
Each participant was given one of three, randomly distributed, news article packets, asked to read the news article and answer the questionnaire. They were asked not to compare their packets to their neighborís. Participants were given no time limit to complete their questionnaire.
A one way between subjects ANOVA was used to examine participantís fear of the dog in their news article. There was no significant difference found between the three different news articles and participantís fear of the dog (F (2,47)= .488, p > .05). The mean fear for the participants answering from the Irish Setter pictured news article was 3.8, from the aggressive looking Pit Bull pictured news article was 4.7, and from the non-aggressive Pit Bull pictured, non-graphic language news article was 4.6.
A one way between subjects ANOVA was used to examine if participants would be more cautious of the dog in their news article. A significant difference was found between the news articles and participants caution around the dog (F (2,47)= 4.652, p =.015). An average of 81% of participants who read the Irish Setter news article said they would not be more cautious of this breed of dog. An average of 50% of participants who read the aggressive looking Pit Bull news article said they would not be more cautious of this breed of dog. And, an average of only 31% of participants who read the non-aggressive looking Pit Bull, non-graphic language new article said they would not be more cautious of this breed of dog.
A one way between subjects ANOVA was used to examine if participants would be afraid if the dog in their article was being walked toward them. A marginally significant difference was found between the news articles and participants fear of this situation (F (2,47)=3.108, p=.054). On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning no fear and 10 meaning high fear, the participants who read the Irish Setter article averaged 2.63. The participants that read the non-aggressive looking Pit Bull, non-graphic language news article averaged 3.75 and the participants that read the aggressive looking Pit Bull article averaged 4.81.
A one way between subjects ANOVA was used to examine if participants would or would not adopt this dog if it were available for adoption. A significant difference was found between the news articles and the participantís choice of not to adopt the dog (F (2, 47)=5.552, p=.007). An average of 18% of participants who read the Irish Setter article said they would not adopt this dog. An average of 68% of participants who read the non-aggressive looking Pit Bull, non-graphic language article said they would not adopt this dog. An average of 62% of participants who read the aggressive looking Pit Bull article said they would not adopt this dog.
A one way between subjects ANOVA was used to examine if participants believed the type of incident described in the article was typical. A marginally significant difference was found between the news articles and the participants belief of typicality (F (2,47)=2.837, p=.069). On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all typical and 10 being very typical, the participants who read the Irish Setter article averaged 3.31. The participants who read the non-aggressive looking Pit Bull, non-graphic language article averaged 5.5 and the participants who read the aggressive looking Pit Bull article averaged 5.
The hypothesis was supported however, by other research, such as Collier (2006) on the subject of negative views of Pit Bulls, which did discuss the mediaís role in creating negative reputations for the breed. Other research by Twining, Arluke and Patronek (2000) that says Pit Bull owners struggle to manage the bad stigma their pets have, from negative media coverage, was also used to support the hypothesis. Yet, the study conducted was unable to significantly link the two.
There were several limitations in this study. One obvious drawback in this study and many others conducted on college campuses was the participants used. Although, this particular class had a diverse group of students, which was an asset, it was not large enough. More participants would have given each condition a bigger sample size to retrieve data from and possibly enhanced the results. The basic design of the study was also flawed. The methods used were too broad to pinpoint the exact causational relationship between the participantís opinions based upon the news articles they read. Significant findings were established but pointed towards participantís negative feelings about the different breed of dog in the article and failed to correlate their feelings with the way the media article presented the breed. This could have resulted because of life long biasís participantís may have had, previous relationships/encounters with one of the mentioned breeds, or it could have been as simple as they do not watch the news or read the newspaper, but only now about dogs, what their family taught them. Because many of these variables were not controlled, it should allow for ease in future research design to further study this hypothesis. Controlling these and other variables, and/or changing the experimental design to be more specific towards a more, well defined operational definition may establish a precise link between the mediaís role in peopleís perception.
The media will, most likely, continue to exploit any negative aspect of the Pit Bull, as they do most other attention grabbing, controversial, hot topics going on in our society. Whether or not this is a key factor in societies negative view of the breed remains to be seen. Further experimental studies and research on its relevance, will hopefully one day be made, so awareness and accurate information man begin to change the breeds stigma.
Dog attack renews call for breed specific ban. (2006, January 26). Tulsa News Channel Eight, KTUL, LLC. http://www.ktul.com/stories/0106/297592.html
The Humane Society of the United States. (2006) HSUS Statement on Dangerous Dogs and Breed Specific Legislation. Retrieved September 5, 2006, from http://www.hsus.org/pets/issues_affecting_our_pets/dangerous_dogs.html.
Jessup, D. (1995). The working pit bull. Neptune City, New Jersey: TFH Publications, Inc.
Sacks, J., Lockwood, R., Hornreich, J., Sattin, R. (1996). Fatal dog attacks, 1989-1994. Pediatrics, 97, 891-895.
Twining, H., Arluke, A., Patronek, G. (2000).Managing the stigma of outlaw breeds: A case study of pit bull owners. Journal of Human-Animal Studies, 8,
Weiss HB, Freidman DI, Coben JH, (1998). Incidence of dog bite injuries treated in emergency departments. Journal of American MedicalAssociation, 279, 51-53.
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