Sunday, January 9, 2011

Case Study 1

Eagle Snatches Dog While Owner Watches
Valdez, Alaska -- A bald eagle satisfied its hunger at a Valdez gas station when it snatched up a small dog and flew away, leaving the dog's owner screaming in horror.

The chihuahua-like dog had been let out of a motor home to run around in the station's parking lot while the owners, an unidentified couple from Georgia, cleaned the vehicle's windshield.
Witnesses said the pet was about 5 feet away from the RV when the eagle swooped down from a perch in a nearby tree. Before the owners could react, the eagle circled up and away, heading off toward the city's harbor clinching the pooch tightly.

"It was the damnedest thing I ever saw," said Dennis Fleming, a gas station attendant. "The dog gave one yelp and that was it."

The woman owner clutched her hands to her face and cried, "Oh, my God," while Fleming tried to console her.

Her husband, however, didn't appear to take the dog's departure too seriously. Fleming said as the man walked around the side of the motor home, out of sight of his wife, he began to grin and chopped his hands in the air and exclaimed, "Yeah! Yeah!”

   After reading “Eagle Snatches Dog While Owner Watches,” I was appalled that the story was actually published in a newspaper. The story is based entirely one on person’s account, and this one person is a gas station attendant. This should have raised an alarming red flag in the copy editor’s mind when he or she was reading it. A news story should never rely on one person’s word, especially if the person is not some sort of expert or official. On top of the lack of reliable sources, there are a lot of gaping holes in the story that led me to believe the attendant made the whole incident up. There are many unanswered questions that need to be addressed before this story could ever be published.

    The first question I asked myself when reading this story was, “Why did the reporter not speak with the dog’s owners?” I found it very surprising and quite questionable that the only source in the story was Dennis Fleming, the gas station attendant. Also, the story reads “witnesses said the pet was about 5 feet away from the RV when the eagle swooped down from a perch in a nearby tree.” Who are these other witnesses? Why are they not quoted in the story? If this incident actually happened, the accounts of the other witnesses as well as the owners themselves would not have been difficult to attain. Instead, the entire story is based on hearsay, and hearsay is not sufficient in newspapers, which are supposed to present facts only. If newspapers relied on sources like this all the time, they would have outlandish stories every day. There’s no doubt that these kinds of stories would sell papers, but journalism is about reporting the truth.
    For all we know, Fleming could be making this entire story up. In fact, there are some major holes in the story that lead me to believe he fabricated the story entirely.
    The first clue that this story was fabricated was its defiance of basic physics. When reading this, I asked myself “Would a bald eagle be capable of ‘snatching up’ a dog – even one that is the size of a chihuahua – and flying away effortlessly?” The story says the eagle had come from a nearby perch. If it was coming from a short distance away, would the eagle really be able to gain enough momentum to swoop up a dog “before the owners could react”? I did some research on bald eagles and their flying capabilities and found this article on the website of the Division of Wildlife Conservation Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Ron Clarke, a biologist who has his master’s degree studying birds of prey and is also a falconer himself, explains in further detail the carrying capabilities of bald eagles. He says if an eagle has a lot of momentum (about 20 to 30 miles per hour), it could pick up a small dog and continue flying. I doubt that an eagle could gain this kind of momentum flying from a nearby perch. I trust Clarke’s expertise on eagles much more than the account of a gas station attendant.

    Another aspect of the story that caused me to believe it was fiction was the husband’s reaction to the incident, as well as Fleming’s reaction. Fleming said the husband “began to grin and chopped his hands in the air and exclaimed, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’” after watching his pet being carried away into the sky. Even if the husband didn’t have the fondest feelings for the dog, I find it very unbelievable that anyone would react like this. Even if he loathes his wife’s pooch, his natural reaction would be shock, not celebration. While Fleming describes the husband’s reaction as one of insensitivity, he describes his own reaction as comforting. The story reads: “The woman owner clutched her hands to her face and cried, ‘Oh, my God,’ while Fleming tried to console her.” It sounds to me like Fleming is making himself out to be a sympathetic hero, while the husband is crass. Besides, would a gas station attendant really be in the position to console a customer? I highly doubt it.

    This story is the perfect example of what not to do in reporting and what to watch out for when editing. A story should never rely on one source, especially if the source is not an official, expert or spokesperson. Copy editors should not be too quick to trust reporters and should instead question everything. For example, in this story the editor should have questioned whether it was physically possible for an eagle to swoop up a dog in the circumstances described. If editors do not have a critical eye for anything that seems fishy or untrue.

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