Tag: journalism

Another Viral Story Claims A Student Identifies As A Cat

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.

None of the stories have turned out to be true.

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.”

Viral story about alleged cat-identified teenager
The Herald-Sun’s story has spread via News Corp.’s digital platforms to social media, clickbait sites and less scrupulous publishers.

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.

Viral hoax story
Another News Corp. platform promotes the story.

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.

The New York Times Is Back To Spread Misinformation About Cats

Prompted by the recent news that Polish scientists have added cats to a list of invasive alien species, the New York Times ran an enterprise story on Tuesday titled “The Outdoor Cat: Neighborhood Mascot Or Menace?”

I’m highly critical of print media stories on animals because I’ve been a journalist for almost my entire career, and I know when a reporter has done her homework and when she hasn’t. Unfortunately it looks like Maria Cramer, author of the Times story, hasn’t.

Her story identifies the stray cats of Istanbul as “ferals,” cites bunk studies — including meta-analyses based on suspect data — and misrepresents a biologist’s solutions “to adopt feral cats, have them spayed or neutered and domesticate them.”

Doubtless the biologist understands cats are domesticated, but Cramer apparently does not, and her story misrepresents the domestication process.

Individual animals can’t be domesticated. Only species can. It’s a long, agonizingly slow process that involves changes at the genetic level that occur over many generations. Domestication accounts for physical changes (dogs developing floppy ears while their wolf ancestors have rigid ears, for example) and temperamental ones. A hallmark of domestication is the adjustment to coexisting with humans.

agriculture animal beautiful cat
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In other words, if cats were wild animals it would take hundreds of years to fully domesticate them, and I’m sure no one’s suggesting we wait hundreds of years to solve the free-ranging cat problem.

Ferals can be “tamed,” but the majority of cats living in proximity to humans are strays, not ferals. The difference? Strays are socialized to humans and will live among us, while ferals are not and will not. Strays can be captured and adopted. In most cases ferals can’t, and the best we can hope for is that they become barn cats.

To her credit, Cramer does make efforts to balance the story and quotes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the U.K., which places the majority of the blame squarely at the feet of humans, noting “the decline in bird populations has been caused primarily by man-made problems such as climate change, pollution and agricultural management.”

Even our structures kill billions of birds a year. That’s the estimated toll just from the mirrored surfaces of skyscrapers, and no one’s suggesting we stop building skyscrapers.

Indeed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud (MBS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Araba, has been busy commissioning science fiction city designs when he’s not murdering journalists critical of his policies. The design he’s chosen for his ultra-ambitious future city, which he hopes will rival the pyramids in terms of lasting monuments to humanity’s greatness, is a 100-mile-long mirrored megacity called Neom, which is Arabic for “Dystopian Bird Hell.” (Okay, we made that up. Couldn’t resist.)

Take a look:

The point is, of the many factors driving bird extinction, humans are responsible for the majority of them, and if we want to save birds we have to do more than bring cats inside. Additionally, sloppy research portraying cats as the primary reason for bird extinction has resulted in cruel policies, like Australia’s effort to kill two million cats by air-dropping poisoned sausages across the country.

This blog has always taken the position that keeping cats indoors is the smart play, and it’s win-win: It protects cats from the many dangers of the outdoors (predators like coyotes and mountain lions, fights with other neighborhood cats, diseases, intentional harm at the hands of disturbed humans, getting run over by vehicles), ensures they’re not killing small animals, and placates conservationists.

At the same time, we don’t demonize people who allow their cats to roam free, and we recognize attitudes vary widely in different countries. Indeed, as the Times notes, 81 percent of pet cats are kept indoors in the US, while 74 percent of cat caretakers allow their pets to roam in the U.K.

We have readers and friends in the U.K., and we wouldn’t dream of telling them what to do, or suggest they’re bad people for letting their cats out.

Ultimately, tackling the problem depends on getting a real baseline, which Washington, D.C. did with its Cat Count. The organizers of that multi-year effort brought together cat lovers, bird lovers, conservationists and scientists to get the job done, and it’s already paying off with new insights that will help shape effective policies. To help others, they’ve created a toolkit explaining in detail how they conducted their feline census and how to implement it elsewhere.

Every community would do well — and do right by cats and birds — by following D.C.’s lead.