Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lake County News Sun shows us how to mis-report!

Sometimes I get mocked for claiming there is a bias towards over-reporting pit bull bites and ignoring bites from other breeds. You'll see this derision more so on comment boards; usually it's folks telling us we're so silly for buying into a massive government-news media conspiracy against pit bulls.

Which is silly, of course. I doubt the news media of the world are colluding to conspire against us lowly pit bull owners. What I think is true, though, is that news agencies knows what sells, knows what gets comments and readership up, knows what inspires fear and ire amongst their audience. When it comes to dog issues, bringing up "pit bull" does all of that - it sells, it inspires raucous debate, is engenders fear where no fear need be present.

And a perfect example is the Lake County News Sun's most recent article on dog bites in the county.

If you read the article and the sidebar, you might be inclined to believe that a) dog bites are significant health hazard in Lake County and b) pit bulls should be run out of town.

Let me list to you the order of species/breeds listed in the sidebar.

1) Pit bulls are mentioned first and foremost with 72 bites out of 500
2) Long and short haired cats - 69 reports (what about the medium haired?!?)
3) Horse - 1 bite
4) Bats - 33 bites
5) Coyotes - 7 bites
6) Muskrats - 5 bites
7) Raccoons - 5 bites
8) Skunks - 5 bites
9) Rats, wild - 2 bites
10) Rat, domestic - 1 bite
11) Chipmunk - 1 bite
12) Squirrel - 1 bite

So, you have to get through 11 other species before you get to see the other two top biting breeds:
13) German Shepherds - 70 of the 500 bites
14) Labrador Retrievers - 69 of the 500 bites

"Pit Bull" is mentioned five times more than the one mention of German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever. It's almost an afterthought that the two other breeds are mentioned.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb here and saying that this article is a little skewed toward the mentioning of pit bulls and not in a positive way (one mentions an attack, two are in reference to the dog bites, and two are in reference to banning pit bulls).

What does the data proffered really tell us about Lake County's dog bite problem?

Between January and April, there have been 500 dog bite reports. That means 0.07012% of the population reported a dog bite to the health department. Let's say 500 is only 10% of the actual number of dog bites and, really, 5,000 of the 713,000 residents were bitten. That's still 0.7% of the population who can claim being bitten by a dog.

And the top biters? Pit Bulls - 14.4%, German Shepherds - 14.0%, Labrador Retrievers - 13.8%. That is to say, you are as likely to be bitten by a pit bull as you are by a GSD or Lab.

None of the data includes severity of bites. All the news agency could come up with is a publicized case of a serious bite from a pit bull. That does not establish that pit bulls are inherently more dangerous, bite more frequently or cause more damage when they do. It only establishes that the newspaper handpicked what they wanted to share with their audience.

The top biting breeds are popular dogs, the most popular dogs. It makes sense they'd bite at the same rate (not high). I'd probably argue that pit bulls are more populous than GSDs and so, as a population base, bite less frequently. But even if I really argued that, who cares? Unless there are only 80 pit bulls in all of Lake County, they aren't a real health threat. Neither are GSDs or Labs.

Yes, let's be safe and educated on how to interact with dogs. That's just common sense stuff we should all know and learn. There is no evidence I've seen, though, that indicates dogs are a significant health hazard. If anything, the opposite is true - dogs provide medical benefits and companionship more so than they provide bites on people. We really don't give them enough credit.

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