News

Reality news

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Is it real, or is it “reality” news?

You know, reality news as in “reality TV,” as in “it could be real, you know,” even if it probably  isn’t.

Can you say “Moose gives birth in Lowe’s parking lot” in Alaska! The story was everywhere in the interwebs. It was a fraud.

The Alaska Dispatch News, to its credit, eventually wrote a correction in its version conceding there was no evidence the moose was born in the parking lot. And the newspaper had a ready excuse for what happened; the story was “based on posts seen on social media. It’s unclear where the moose was actually born.”

The newspaper wasn’t brave enough to concede that all available evidence pointed to the calf being born somewhere other than in the parking lot, but ADN.com was ethically way ahead of other media here and around the country.

No one else even bothered to try to correct the story. The tale of a moose giving birth to a calf in a Lowe’s parking lot in Alaska will now live on forever as an Alaska urban legend, though anyone who goes looking for the actual birth will be sadly disappointed.

The KTUU-TV video that has circled the globe with the tag line proclaiming “a crowd gathered to witness the miracle of birth Tuesday when a moose gave birth in an Anchorage parking lot” shows no such thing. If you click on the video expecting to join in the witnessing, you will be sadly disappointed.

But what else would one expect from an affiliate with NBC, the one-time home of lying Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.  I’m sorry, but there is no way to describe what Williams did in polite terms He went away beyond the already the pathetic norm of the day, which seems to have set this standard as the bar:

“If someone says it,  publish it. The need for any evidence to support what is being said is unnecessary. If it sounds like a good story, run with it.”

Case in point: “A starving wolf stalked a woman and her dog for 12 hours and then along came a bear.”

Could this have happened in the Canadian wilderness just as the Washington Post, an expert on the Canadian wilderness, reported? Sure.

Is there any evidence it happened?

Well, there is the woman who was lost overnight and sparked a search and has good reason to make up a story to make the search sound justified, and there is the woman who was lost overnight and sparked a search and has good reason to make up a story to make the search sound justified.

Was there a “starving wolf?” Well, she claims to have seen a “skinny wolf” approach her dog. Starving? Maybe, though a skinny wolf is not necessarily a starving wolf. But wait, there’s more.

“Night settled around (Joanne) Barnaby, hiding the swarms of mosquitoes that blanketed her arms, legs and face,” writes Michael E. Miller, who appears to be tapping his inner Jack London. “And still the wolf snapped and growled, waiting for the woman or her dog to drop their guard.”

Really?

Fort Smith, Northwest Territory – where this was supposed to have happened – is at about the same latitude as Anchorage. There is no real dark on June 10. There is sunset, civil twilight and sunrise. You can look it up here: http://www.timeanddate.com/sun/canada/hay-river

It gets dim, but it doesn’t really get dark. If you’re light skinned, and a photo makes Barnaby out to be pretty light skinned, and your skin is “blanketed” in mosquitoes you can sure as hell see that. But let’s let Miller continue:

“Barnaby was near collapse when dawn began to creep across the sky.

“That’s when she heard the bear grunt.

“And that’s when she got an idea.

“It was an idea so outrageous, some critics would later accuse her of making the whole ordeal up.

“Yet, Canadian officials and close friends confirm Barnaby was missing in the woods.

“And she is sticking by her story that a preposterous idea — of pitting one predator against another — saved her life.”

To make a long story short, Barnaby’s claim is she got between a bear and its cub, the bear attacked the wolf, and viola! in the chaos she was saved. The evidence to support this? Canadian officials who confirm she went missing in the woods.

And People with a healthy skepticism about a story hard to believe?

Oh, they’re just “critics.”

Why wouldn’t someone believe Barnaby led this starving wolf into a situation where, in her words,”all of a sudden I could hear this crashing behind me and this yelping and growling and howling. I just got out of there as fast as I could—from all of them, the cub, the mama bear and wolf.”

OK, so a wolf that wouldn’t attack a human and her dog – pretty soft targets – attacks an unseen bear and its  unseen cub instead of just running away from the danger. Maybe this is really a story about one dumb-ass wolf.

In Miller’s defense, he wasn’t the only one picking up this hard-to-believe story and running with as if there was some evidence to support it even if there is none. And he did note that some commenters on Barnaby’s Facebook page, where this began,”questioned her story, however, finding its confluence of wild animals too much to believe.

“But both Barnaby and (and friend Tammy) Caudron insist it really happened.”

What more evidence do you want? Caudron, who witnessed nothing and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who told Miller that “we can confirm that the RCMP participated in the search.”

Good enough. Barnaby’s story is already on the internet. The odds are it’s true, right?

“…Many of the people trying to pick holes in her story don’t have a clue what life is like in the Northern Territories,” Miller wrote.

He’s probably right about that.  But how much about the NWT is known by Miller, who a year ago got punked by a Canadian nudist with a Facebook story about climbing Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu. Still,  give Miller credit for at least pointing out there were skeptics.

Over at the CBC, which “broke” the story if you don’t count Barnaby’s Facebook post, Katherine Barton was all in.

“What’s the best way to fend off a wolf that’s stalking you? Bait it with a bear cub, of course,” she wrote. “It sounds incredible, but that’s exactly what Joanne Barnaby did when she got into a terrifying situation while out picking morel mushrooms near Fort Smith, N.W.T., last Friday.”

Exactly! Not even a hint of skepticism here. If  Barnaby claims that’s what happened that must be what happened.

There was this bear and there was this wolf and Barnaby says, “I heard this big crashing behind me and realized that the mama bear had attacked the wolf, or maybe the other way around, I don’t know, but they were fighting and I could hear the wolf yelping and I could hear the mama bear growling and I could hear all this crashing and I just took off!”

Or something like that. Unless Barnaby simply got lost, hiked herself to near exhaustion, and in a tired and sleep-deprived state had one marvelous hallucination, something which has been known to happen to people suffering fatigue.

But what the hell? She told a good story. Does it matter a lick if it’s true?

Does it matter if anything in the news is true anymore? It doesn’t seem so. Reporters just grab whatever is there and run with it. Journalism has always been a mistake prone business because  journalism is hard. It requires processing a lot of information on deadline, and there is no way to checklist it as there is with other operations from surgery to rocket launches.

But journalism has gotten only more mistake prone year by year for a decade as experienced journalists have left the business, the smart kids have shied away from the profession in favor of something with more of a future, and the pressure has risen to “grab” readers, for lack of a better word.

Against that backdrop, accuracy has become something of an afterthought. As a reader, what you really do not  want to do these days is read any story that contains information about a subject you know well because that story might just cause your head to explode.

That almost happened to me on Friday when I read an Associated Press story reporting “a raft carrying at least 10 people capsized during a guided trip on Alaska’s remote North Slope.”

Was it possible? Yes. As with all stories, almost anything is possible.

Was it probable? Not bloody likely.

In the first place, there are logistical reasons. Low water and braided channels on the north-draining Brooks rivers means you sometimes have to drag or walk rafts. Big rafts are a tough drag. And expensive aircraft charters make getting big boats to the Arctic costly.

In the second place, the Kongakut River, where the accident happened, is Class II/III whitewater. It is hard to imagine someone flipping a 10-person raft in Class III whitewater, the kind of water people regularly run in packrafts, inflatable kayaks and inflatable canoes.

Not only that, if you went to the website of the outfitter unfortunately involved in the accident – Alaska Alpine Adventures – and pulled up their Kongakut trip, the very first thing you saw was a photo of two people in a Soar inflatable canoe.

And, of course, as it turned out, what had happened is that one of those canoes had flipped – not a totally unexpected occurrence on one of the Brooks Range rivers – and the two people in it had died, something that rarely, rarely happens on these rivers.

The eight people in the other four rafts were never in any danger, nor was the guide in a larger, inflatable raft full of gear who chased the swimmers downstream trying to save them but was unsuccessful.

The accident was, sadly, the kind of accident anyone even remotely familiar with the rivers that drain onto the Arctic coastal plain would expect, but you would never have known that from the way the news was covered.

There was a time when reporters covered “beats” and learned about what they were covering. Those days are largely gone. Now there are a lot of reporters covering things about which they know nothing, and readers are left to pay the price.

Because a lot of what you read now is not real; it’s reality journalism. Just like on TV. Wahoo!

 

 

 

 

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2 replies »

  1. I wonder if this woman is friends with the guy that found the “hibernating bear” in the Byron Valley ice cave? That was a similar viral and unverifiable tall bear tale that aroused the “critics” (for good reason).

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  2. You’re making a larger point here about “news” in the internet age, which I can’t disagree with.

    I also wonder whether there is something specific to the northern frontier, be it Alaska or Canada, that lets otherwise sober minds engage in flights of fancy. You know, this is some untrammeled blank slate of a northern wilderness, so let’s project onto it anything we want to (I am hardly stating an original idea here as a matter of literary criticism).

    Examples are legion. Two random things that come to mind:

    1 – a profile of the Grace Christian School xc team in national publication Running Times (http://www.runnersworld.com/high-school/the-alaska-factor) that even acknowledges that “Alaska has long held a romantic place in the American psyche” (citing Jack London)… and then makes this remarkable statement within the first paragraph: “Even Mt. Susitna, the striking series of ridges and glaciers rising from an island west of the city, had disappeared in the fog.” Count the errors.

    (I emailed them a nuanced and polite correction. This went un-corrected. That’s something this website does that Running Times will not, apparently.)

    2 – The SCOTUS opinion in Sturgeon v. Frost (“the hovercraft case”) that begins with the Alaska Purchase, and surveys Seward’s Folly, “Polar Bear Garden,” and the 1898 Gold Rush within the first two paragraphs. I’m not sure that anything there is inaccurate… but it’s also not all that legally relevant, and I would be justifiably bench-slapped if I tried to write that way. Even for the U.S. Supreme Court, anything involving Alaska is apparently an irresistible opportunity for mythopoesis.

    Anyway, I agree with you. I just wonder if it’s even worse when Alaska (or northern Canada) is involved.

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