Media credibility in this country is at an all-time low not so much because of big media biases but because of the little errors that make it appear old media doesn’t care about basic facts much more than social media no matter how much the former professes otherwise.
The New York Times stumbled smack into this, as it has so many times in recent years, when it last week reported that “currently, there are more than 1,900 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states and Alaska.”
This is what might be described as an arguably factual statement gone badly wrong. It all depends on what the meaning of more is. It is like reporting that “currently, there are more than 600,000 people in New York City.”
Indeed there are. There are more than 15 times that many or almost 9 million. There also happen to be about 15 times as many grizzly bears in Alaska alone than the 1,900 the Times reported “in the lower 48 states and Alaska.”
This is not difficult information to obtain. If you can spell “Google,” you can type into its search engine this simple question: “How many grizzly bears are there in Alaska?”
The first answer to come up is from Wikipedia, which says that “around 60,000 wild grizzly bears are located throughout North America, 30,000 of which are found in Alaska, and up to 29,000 live in Canada.”
- Alaska, 30,000
- Montana, 1,800 – 2,000
- Wyoming, 600
- Washington (state), 500
- Idaho, 80-100
By that count, there are a minimum of 2,980 grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states alone or already “more than 1,900” – well more than 1,900.
Death by 1,000 cuts
How what was once considered the country’s newspaper of record came up with a figure so far from reality is impossible to know, but the number appears in a story reporting on a proposal to remove grizzly bears from the endangered species list in the Lower 48 states – a change which many American environmentalists do not like.
The Times quotes spokesmen for two environmental groups in the story.
“We think this step toward delisting is a step toward potential catastrophe for grizzlies in the northern Rockies,” says Joe Bushyhead, a lawyer for WildEarth Guardians, which the Times describes as a “conservation group” that successfully sued to prevent delisting the grizzly in 2018.
On its website, WildEarth describes itself not as a “conservation group,” however, but as an “environmental justice” organization, which is similar but different. Conservation groups, in general, support the wise use of natural resources. The National Wildlife Federation, the largest of these groups, describes its goal as “increasing America’s fish and wildlife populations and enhancing their capacity to thrive in a rapidly changing world….
“Protecting these natural resources is a cause that has long united Americans from all walks of life and political stripes. To hunters, anglers, hikers, birders, wildlife watchers, boaters, climbers, campers, cyclists, gardeners, farmers, forest stewards, and other outdoor enthusiasts, this conservation ethic represents a sacred duty and obligation to protect and build upon our conservation heritage for the sake of wildlife, ourselves, our neighbors, and—most of all—for future generations.”
WildEarth is coming from a somewhat different place.
“We take risks, lead the left flank, and are unabashed and audacious in furthering our mission,”’ it says. “We acknowledge our work can have adverse impacts in furthering inequities of historic and current colonized systems of concentrated power.”
It views the conservation groups that trace their roots back to the beginning of the scientific understanding of ecology in the 1800s and the development of the natural-resource management concepts that followed as vestiges of “settler colonialism.
“We have always centered our work on defending the rights of nature by protecting the vulnerable and voiceless and confronting the powerful people and unjust systems that stand in the way,” WildEarth says. Philosophically, it is more closely aligned with the Center for Biological Diversity than traditional conservation groups.
After former President Barack Obama’s climate-change tour of Alaska in 2015, the Center accused him of being a climate-change turncoat who during his visit should have announced “these immediate steps to begin stemming this crisis: No drilling for oil in the Arctic, no more leasing of fossil fuel development on public lands and offshore areas, no Keystone XL pipeline, no more flirting with half-measures to reduce greenhouse pollution that’s coming from our power plants, factories and other human sources. Instead, we turn the page right now – today – and move our economy to a system based on sane and safe fuel sources, ones that ensure the survival of our planet and a livable future for those who come after us. We start right here, right now and don’t look back.”
There is a general consensus that ordering such an immediate shift to non-fossil fuel sources would cause economic chaos as Samantha Gross, the director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at Brookings has explained. Recognizing this, conservation groups such as the NWF have said they are working toward lowering greenhouse gas emissions “while safeguarding communities, creating jobs and supporting sustainable economic growth.”
NWF in 2017 supported removing grizzly bears from the endangered species list, arguing the big increase in bear numbers over the course of the decades was a shining example of “how the North American model of conservation can bring species back from the brink when there is dedicated funding, sound scientific management, and consistent collaboration between the federal government, states and the conservation community.”
If the Times approached the NWF for a comment on the renewed consideration being given delisting, it didn’t report what was said, but it did report the Center for Biological Diversity’s view:
“…Removing the protections for the grizzly bear would allow states ‘to greenlight trophy hunting’ of the animals.
“‘It’s disheartening that the federal government may strip protections from these treasured animals to appease trophy hunters and the livestock industry,” Andrea Zaccardi, a lawyer for the center, said in a statement on Friday. “Grizzly bears have come back from the brink since receiving federal protection in 1975, but the recovery of these imperiled bears still has a long way to go.”
The Times’ pitting of these views against those of Western, “red state” governors who asked for a review of delisting, coupled with the significant reporting error as to the number of grizzly bears in the U.S., immediately makes any Times reader West of the Mississippi – except for those living in California, Portland Seattle – think the worst of the newspaper.
In simple language, this one misstatement of fact leaves it looking like the newspaper is trying to slant the story to support the view of environmental groups that a mere handful of surviving bears are in danger of being wiped out if their endangered species status is lifted.
Such a desired slant could be the case, but one should never assume conspiracy when incompetence offers a likely explanation.
I don’t know Johnny Diaz, the reporter who wrote the story, from Adam, but his bio reflects someone unlikely to know much about grizzly bears, the American West or the difficulties of balancing human and bear lives in the West where it is sometimes necessary to kill some of the latter to protect the lives of the former.
Diaz grew up in Florida, attended university there, and went to work for the Miami Herald before moving north to work as a features writer and later a business reporter for The Boston Globe, according to his Wikimedia biography, which appears, like many, to be largely autobiographical.
There is nothing in that bio to indicate he knows anything about science or the environment, let alone the management of large omnivores; his main interests appear to be writing and cultural affairs. The Times describes his position today as that of “a general assignment reporter covering breaking news,” meaning that his job in today’s media world is whatever an editor tells him to do on any given day.
Here’s how that generally works:
The Times gets a press release saying the federal government is going to again initiate a review of grizzly bear “status in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.” An editor tells Diaz to write a story and to “make sure to get the other view.” Diaz fairly summarizes the views of the Western governors who have asked for a review of the grizzly’s status as an endangered species.
Then he goes looking for that “other view.” Who knows what help he gets in finding it given the other view can comprise almost anything. I remember asking editors at the old Anchorage Daily News which “other view” they wanted, given that a reporter can rustle up just about any version desired.
Diaz could have found Montana rancher Trina Jo Bradley who is already on record saying the failure to delist the bears is “a straight punch in the face to every producer who has ever lost livestock to grizzlies, to every parent that can’t let their kids adventure outside for fear they’ll have a run-in with a grizzly, and to every scientist who has worked to recover the population of grizzly bears in the lower 48.”
But that probably wouldn’t have fit the Times’ preconceived notion of what constitutes the “other side” here.
Not Diaz’s fault. Not even the Times’ fault, really.
From the perspective of most people living in the states of the overcrowded Northeast – where most big predators were long ago exterminated and have never been allowed to return – grizzlies, cougars and wolves are persecuted species, and humans should be more tolerant even of them even when their behavior threatens or kills people.
This view is, of course, starkly different from the view of the resident problem animal in New York – the rat. The city is now searching for a “rat czar” to marshall its forces for a new “war” on rats, according to the Washington Post.
And you can bet your last dollar that no reporter writing about that war is being told to make sure to get the “other side” from Defenders of Rats or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the only organization apparently willing to support the big rodents.
It has protested the use of glue traps in the city to catch rodents claiming they “cause immense suffering, as panicked victims struggle mightily, tearing their flesh and even chewing off their own limbs in their frantic attempts to escape,” and it claimed credit for getting the New York City Health Department to stop a man from ridding the city of rats in a more humane way than glue traps by flattening them with the quick blow of a bat.
Give PETA credit for its consistency to the philosophy of “animals good; humans bad.” Not so the mainstream media.
Therein views shift as constantly as the “good guys” and the “bad guys” change hats. And the problem with reporting – all reporting – lies in these shifting perspectives. We all harbor preconceived notions through which we view the world, and it’s hard for most people to make the necessary effort to identify them and at least try to push them aside when analyzing anything.
When a reporter takes his or her unrecognized perspective into a story – then compounds it by making gross, factual errors because he or she was too lazy to check the information for accuracy, too ignorant of the issue to recognize a claim too good to be true, or unable to accept that most interest groups (even the well-meaning ones) are in the business of playing reporters and thus cannot be trusted to provide good numbers – a story can come out looking badly slanted even if that wasn’t the intent.
These kinds of mistakes have sadly become a journalistic norm, and one all too easily dismissed within the business.
Thirty-three thousand grizzly bears are “more than 1,900” right? What’s the problem?
Or looked at another way, as one young reporter at the Anchorage Daily News explained after being told one of the sources quoted in her story was making things up, “It might not be my your truth, and it might not be my truth, but it’s his truth.”
The U.S. might have a healthy population of more than 30,000 of the big bears, but if Bushyhead and Zaccardi, or whoever else supplied Diaz the number believe the country is down to less than 2,000, it’s their truth, and a reporter shouldn’t question that. Doing so might hurt someone’s feelings.
All of which helps to explain how we entered into the post-truth world of today. One can blame a lot of people for this, starting with a long list of politicians both right and left, but one cannot ignore the role of the media in helping to get us here by making minor but sometimes hugely meaningful factual errors the norm.
As has many times been said, the devil lives in the details. And in this case, we have met the devil, and he is us.