Media Hype Was For the Birds

The sky is falling. Or maybe not.

By Emily Bea

 

It’s like a scene from a bad horror film.  One minute all seems right with the world, and the next minute birds plop one by one onto the ground.  The road is littered with tiny bodies, around 3,000, all dead. New reports of massive and random deaths of bird flocks seem to be pouring in every day. 

Some Red-winged black birds in Arkansas and Louisiana, jackdaws in Sweden and pigeons in Canada all dropped dead shortly after the New Year.  Everywhere you turn there’s a story about birds randomly falling from the sky that are dead before they hit the ground.

There’s no denying that this is a strange phenomenon.  There’s also no denying that people love the weird and strange. Think about freak shows, T.V. shows about hoarders, Lady Gaga, the examples are endless. So it’s not really surprising that these dead birds became big headlines, but did the extensive media coverage of these events blow things out of proportion? Yes, news outlets got carried away with the bizarre and at the time, unexplained aspect to the story.

If you look at the articles written shortly after the even there are many vivid and scary headlines, “What Cataclysm Killed the Birds in Arkansas?” or how about “Dead Birds Puzzle Scientists as More Drop From the Sky?”  That is some pretty scary sounding stuff.  The media coverage featured a lot of baffled residents and puzzled scientists.

The coverage of the bird die-offs right after they happened was largely about how unusual and weird it was, there was little to no coverage given to a rational explanation.  Now, a week after the fact, there are plenty of articles that are finally reporting what really killed the Arkansas birds. The official cause was blunt force trauma most likely due to the birds being startled by New Year’s fireworks. Some scientists have shed light on the situation and explained that these die-offs are natural occurrences that happen about a hundred times a year.

A natural occurrence that happens about a hundred times a year is not nearly as fascinating news as a freak occurrence that could possibly be the sign of something more sinister happening to our planet.  This unbalanced coverage whipped people up into an apocalyptic frenzy. 

One paper even coined the term the “Aflockalypse.”  It was like Y2K and the 2012 End-of-the-World discovery all over again.  I remember the Y2K frenzy.  I waited anxiously to see if all of the computers in the country would kick the bucket and the United States would be plunged once more into the dark ages.

As citizens we are taught to trust the news.  There are standards for journalists to ensure that citizens are provided with unbiased and truthful coverage of the world’s events.  That’s a journalist’s job, to provide unbiased truth with multiple viewpoints. Of course we are going to believe what we read, especially if it is from a credible news source.  So if the focus of the news seems to be how freaky and ominous the bird die-offs are then that’s likely to be our focus too. People have enough things to be scared about without news outlets seeing portents of doom around every corner.

For the record, as a journalist myself, I believe in the standards mentioned above and I think that there are a lot of journalists out there who do as well. 

I will also grant that being a journalist isn’t easy, sometimes the truth isn’t always clear right away.  Sometimes, a journalist doesn’t know what the real story is until it emerges much later. 

However boring the other news might have been that weekend, professional journalists should not have allowed themselves to become so fixated on the sensational aspect of the news that they presented a skewed picture that induced a panicked ripple to spread over the internet.

When a flock of birds randomly falls from the sky it is unusual and undoubtedly freaky to witness. In reality, these die-offs happen annually, but at the time of the event that viewpoint was underrepresented in the media. The media hype has made these occurrences seem like a sign of our world coming to an end. 

As journalists we remember that there are other news values besides unusualness, we must keep to our high standards for reporting and eschew the cheap lure of the purely sensational in favor of the rational.  Shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater is unacceptable and putting the spotlight on the bizarre and ignoring other explanations is just as bad.

 

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