Humans have dragged cats into the culture wars, and it seems our furry friends can’t claw their way out.
Australia’s Herald-Sun claimed this week, without any evidence, that a “phenomenally bright” teenage girl at a private school in Melbourne identifies as a cat, and the adults who run the school are cool with it as long as she isn’t too much of a distraction to her classmates.
This is the fifth or sixth viral story about school kids “identifying as cats” so far in 2022. They vary in details — some articles claim schools provide litter boxes in student bathrooms, while others assert teachers were fired for refusing to “meow back” to cat-identified children — but they’re all variations on the same theme.
There are big time red flags in this story. It doesn’t name the student, but that’s not uncommon. Unless a kid decides to speak to the media directly, most outlets refrain from naming minors. But the article doesn’t name the school and it’s based on the word of one person, with all the details attributed to someone described as “a source close to the family.”
Single-source stories are no-nos in journalism, for obvious reasons. There’s an old joke among journalists: “If your mother tells you she loves you, confirm it with a second source.”
In other words, assume nothing and verify everything, especially if the claim is unusual or extraordinary. The absolute minimum standard is two sources, preferably three.
It used to be that breaking this rule was playing Russian roulette with your career, because it’s bound to blow up in your face at some point, and no editor worth her salt would run a story like that. Unfortunately in the age of “publish now, verify never” the veracity of a story is a secondary or tertiary consideration, far less important than an article’s potential to catch fire, go viral and reel in clicks.
This story doesn’t even come close to meeting minimum standards, because the claims come from someone whose name isn’t revealed. When the source is anonymous, the need to verify becomes even more important.
In this case, if a friend of the girl’s family claims the girl is allowed to behave like a cat in school, and that friend isn’t willing to stand by that claim, no reputable news organization should run the story unless they have confirmation from the school or a legitimate document (like a letter to parents from the school) that backs up the claim.
The Herald-Sun story says the school issued a statement in response to the alleged controversy, but again, the school isn’t named so it’s impossible to confirm any details.
Finally, the Herald-Sun is a News Corp.-owned tabloid whose editors have a reputation for printing stories designed to rile up their readership and drive clicks online. The paper gives its reporters bonuses based on traffic numbers, which is an incentive to fabulate outrageous nonsense and ignore crucial but time-consuming work like serving as watchdogs of government.
The editors of the Herald-Sun may not be stupid, but they’re willing to destroy the remaining scraps of credibility the media still has to enjoy one-time spikes in traffic. They know a story like this will make the rounds on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, TikTok and the personal sites of culture war vultures whose formula for drawing readership is whipping readers/viewers into a frenzy.
In the meantime, the most recent polls show media credibility with the public is at an all-time low, which is what happens when journalism becomes a race to the bottom. We used to laugh at junk tabloids that ran cover stories about alien abductions and Elvis sightings. Now we click on them and share them on social media.
Thankfully cats remain oblivious, and ignorance is bliss.