Keeping your feet on the ground as an editor

25 Jan

It’s a common scene in movies set in the American northwest: An eagle swoops down and grabs Fido, Scruffy or whatever generic dog name the screenwriters came up with that day. An upset owner or a concerned character who previously could not stand the pooch runs back and forth, yelling for the bird of prey to let the poor little creature down, as the eagle remains tauntingly in the air with the dog. Given that no audience wants to go home thinking the family dog can be abducted by the hawk that perches in the backyard, little Spot is comically returned to safety. 

However, we all know movies are fiction. Newspapers, on the other hand, are supposed to report events that actually happen. Real-life occurences that happened to real people. More so, one expects to read verified events that have been carefully reported and thoroughly research.

This article serves as an excellent example of why thorough reporting is always a must. While the story is horrifying and seems incredible, and thus immediately newsworthy, there are several gaps in it that a wary editor should call attention to.

Sourcing is a blatant issue here. Though it is possible the mourning wife and overjoyed husband drove off to forget about the day’s startling event before a reporter could ask for their names, more witnesses than a single gas station attendant should have been named to verify the account. Maybe these witnesses could provide more information such as the dog’s name or if the couple was indeed from Georgia. Also, where is this gas station? Surely people with other chihuahua-like dogs would want to stay away from it if there is a canine-snatching eagle calling the station home.

Additionally, there is a bit of insensitivity here. Was the writer sure the eagle was satisfying its own hunger? Maybe its eaglets were the ones needing a meal. No owner wants to be reminded that Fluffy was not simply being carried to a nicer, less mobile household. And once the wife reads about her husband’s reaction, if even true, marital problems will be a lot more serious than navigating the Alaskan roads together.

Also, as a wary editor, one must ask if this can even happen. Can an eagle actually snatch up a dog enjoying some fresh air? According to National Geographic, bald eagles tend to scavenge carrion or steal other animals’ prey. There was no mention of a liking for small household pets.

In this day and age, journalists have modern technology to help them seek an answer to this question as well. Posting this question on Twitter or Facebook would help garner immediate feedback, as well as throw up a red flag of skepticism.

Even more streamlined is Quora, a whole site devoted to question-and-answer communication.

When a question related to this article was posted, an answer led to Snopes’ coverage of the topic. Snopes states that an eagle cannot carry off a dog, and, if given more time, Quora would certainly stir up similar responses and cause all in the newsroom to want to yank the paper’s story to save their publication’s credibility.




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