Because the Internet is driven by clicks, story headlines have become a very important traffic-driver. Unfortunately, this means that the old newspaper adage “if it bleeds, it leads” has been somewhat taken to heart.
You may have heard the term “clickbait,” which is a headline designed to cause a reaction in people — usually anger or outrage — in order to get them to click through to the story. While legitimate news outlets try to avoid this sort of thing, there are too many content purveyors who have turned it into an art form.
Unfortunately, there are also too many web surfers who never read the story, but only the headline. This premise was tested in 2016 with the shocking headline “Scientists say giant asteroid could hit earth next week, causing mass devastation.” The real story was quite different, but only 41% of people would ever figure that out.
Because those of us who are dog lovers are passionate and empathetic people, we can be very susceptible to this kind of thing. Also keep in mind that not all such headlines are just attempts to drive traffic. Sometimes, they happen when an editor doesn’t fully understand a complex story themselves, or if a reporter doesn’t give all the details and sensationalizes the subject when they write it up.
You probably remember headlines like these from late last year:
- Federal Court Rules Police Can Shoot a Barking or Moving Dog While Entering a Home
- Federal court rules police can shoot your dog if necessary
- Court rules that police can shoot a dog if it barks or moves
Along with the headlines, many of the stories (and comments on them) interpreted this to mean that all police could shoot any dog, anywhere, even in a private home, if it barked at them or even moved. That would be pretty outrageous if it were true — but it’s far from true in this case, and is a good lesson in general in learning to look beyond the headlines and get all of the details first.
The important point missing from a lot of coverage of the story was that the ruling does not apply to police in general. Rather, the case came about because the couple involved had sued the police department for violating their Fourth Amendment rights by shooting their dogs. The judge ultimately ruled that, in this case, the officers were justified in their actions.
The judge wrote, “The standard we set out today is that a police officer’s use of deadly force against a dog while executing a search warrant to search a home for illegal drug activity is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment when… the dog poses an imminent threat to the officer’s safety.” (There’s a full breakdown of the ruling at the website Snopes.com.)
Another big thing missing is the officers’ state of mind at the time of the shooting. According to them, the dogs were barking constantly and lunging, and the plaintiffs in the case — the dogs’ owners — never refuted this information. Additionally, something that gets lost in the outrage is that the police were in the process of serving a search warrant in the course of investigating possible felonies, so they had no idea how many people were in the house, whether they were armed, or if anyone was hiding in places they could not get to because of the dogs’ aggression.
There have certainly been cases of police officers shooting dogs without justification, but there have also been convictions in several of them, such as in cases in Louisiana and Long Island. It’s arguable whether either officer was sufficiently punished for what they did, but they both received their day in court and were found guilty, as have people in the reverse situation of having killed a police K-9.
The point of the story is that awareness of animal abuse and fighting against it are important, but it’s also important to get the whole story first, so that we can respond in the right way at the right time. We also need to acknowledge that sometimes tragic things happen.
In an ideal world, police would never have to shoot a dog and we could teach them alternate responses, as well as how to de-escalate an aggressive dog situation without using deadly force. But, in the meantime, we have to balance compassion for animals with empathy for the people who are stuck with a difficult enough job to begin with. We need to educate ourselves as well as educate others, and learn to read beyond the headlines — even the one on this story.