Invasive Swans or Infected Journalism?
Good news first: the media is covering animals to a greater extent than ever before. A fortuitous convergence of responsible advocacy, advanced science (animal ethology), and consumer demand for animal-related content has fostered a more sustained emphasis on a wider range of animal issues. The bad news, of course, is that most of it stinks. I mean, to high heaven.
There are two main ways animal advocates can react to this stench: with anger or with sympathy. Anger sure feels good, and I’ve been guilty of indulging it. But it leads to snark and snark leads to divisiveness and divisiveness means that the mainstream writing on animals will never improve. After all, if I send a “you suck” letter to every reporter who gets the animal story all wrong, I create a situation for the reporter in which ameliorating the problem validates her own abuse. Not a promising strategy.
Sympathy is different. Have you ever been in over your head and had someone throw you a rope? Have you ever had this rescue happen without the person reprimanding you for getting into that situation but, instead, helping you figure out how to avoid it in the future? That’s the approach I’d like to take–the tone I prefer to assume–as I go about deconstructing a recent story, a real stinker, by New York Times reporter Lisa W. Foderaro. In any case, I’ll do my best.
Before proceeding, take a moment to read the piece here. Virtually every sentence in the article is marked by a problem–and often a fundamental one–but for the sake of brevity and readability I’ll focus on a few clunkers, doing so in an effort to highlight issues that, as they’re circulated in the social media, might bubble up to the reporters who make these mistakes and, one hopes, motivate them to write in a way that at least acknowledges they’re covering the lives of emotional and sentient beings, not objects.
Trouble begins in the first sentence, when Foderaro frames the issue in terms of swans being “an invasive species.” The problem with this characterization is that there’s never any indication of what it is that makes swans invasive–other than the fact they are not native to the region. Of course, by that standard, most of New York’s flora and fauna–not to mention citizens–would also be invasive and, in turn, have to be “destroyed”–the word Foderaro uses to describe what might happen to urban swans–on that basis. So, right off the bat, the article quietly tilts in a pro-slaughter direction, doing so based on an undefined but quite loaded term.
Perhaps by “invasive” Foderaro is implying that the 2,200 or so swans are creating substantial economic or ecological havoc (or both). If this were the case, she needs to make that premise crystal clear and, given that slaughtering sentient creatures is at stake, thoroughly back it up with factual data. (Of course, then we would ask another set of questions.) Instead, she merely writes that the swans are seen as “nasty” for “destroying habitat for native ducks and geese, attacking other waterfowl and people, and posing a risk to passenger jets.” This kind of statement creates compound interest for insidious cynicism: by assuming what you refuse to ground in the data of reality (the actual consequences of invasion) you perpetuate the idea that animals don’t have moral worth, despite the fact that all but psychopaths and Ted Nugent know they do.
Anyway, these claims are too casually made. Every animal has an impact on the environment. So, to what extent, we need to know, are swans destroying habitats for native ducks? Give us perspective on this–say, by referring to how this kind of issue played out in the Chesapeake Bay or elsewhere. Moreover, are other organisms interfering with the ducks as well (uh, humans)? This possibility goes unmentioned, although the piece notes that the swans are yanking up aquatic vegetation and clouding the water and disrupting food chains (but, again, is that such a big deal, really, given that ships and barges are plowing through the Hudson as well?). As far as attacking other animals goes, well, is New York planning to “destroy” other animals that become aggressive with their peers? Or will the city implement a policy that protects native bullying? As for passenger jets, are swans the only birds that pose a threat to airplanes? And if so, to what extent? And how does that alleged threat to flight safety compare to other threats, such as overworked air traffic controllers or old airplanes with freaking table trays that won’t properly lock? Aren’t there other, less lethal ways, to make flying safe? And as far as swans harming people, well, please. How many people do you know who have been assaulted by a swan?
The failure to address any of these questions dooms this piece from the start. What this false start means for the reader is that, before getting past the second graph, he’s already convinced, albeit without any evidence, that swans are an invasive animal destroying the Hudson, driving out native ducks, harming people, and posing a threat to airplane traffic. Get over your romantic attachment to these menaces! They deserve to die! All of this without a shred of context or supporting data. Those omissions strike me as bad journalism, the kind you could only get away with if you were writing about an animal without a formal voice on the matter and an editor who knew that geese weren’t going to picket his office or call his boss and complain. (Yeah, I know, I got a bit snarky in there.. . . )
The article gets worse when Foderaro recruits quotes to buttress what she implicitly presents as a fair article on a tough ecological issue. To support the “destroy” perspective, she quotes what appear to be a phalanx of expertise: a State Department of Conservation authority, an Audubon Society expert, a wildlife scientist at Cornell. Representing the anti-destroy position are, by the reporters own admission, “animal rights activists and park goers.” Needless to say, the use of the term “activist” here is code for “loony tunes” and, as for those park goers, these vagabonds are presented as sitting around “tossing bread and pizza crusts” to the swans. (Although one guy had a great comment comparing human immigrants with non-human ones, a point Foderaro might have explored). But, you know, how about quoting an animal ethologist who might be able to provide another explanation–a behavioral one–for what Foderara sees as so “nasty”?
Perhaps being pressured to lend at least some anecdotal support to her earlier suggestion that New Yorkers are under grave threat of swan attacks, Foderaro ends her piece by quoting a bird watcher who “recalled the time she was canoeing with her husband and young son and was attacked by a swan. She fought it off with a paddle.” But was this woman actually attacked? The terrorized woman explains, “It was hissing like crazy and tried to get in the canoe with us . . . they make themselves look huge.”
As do the misrepresentations in this poorly written article.