Guest Commentary

The dog that ran away with the (Mercury) news

By Patrick Mattimore

Bella Week at the Mercury News.

It has been particularly frustrating recently to be a Bay Area newspaper subscriber.

There was a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle last week about Bella the dog, culminating I thought, with a banner headline last Thursday in the Mercury News about the dog’s return to its original owner.

Not content to let sleeping dogs lie (a terrible pun to be sure) the Mercury News resurrected the story two days later by fanning the foster dog’s family feud with the newspaper, explaining how that paper’s own coverage was now causing the family a variety of problems.

The next day that paper’s front page headline was, “Buying Pet Peace of Mind; Owners flock to get microchips for animals.”

Patrick Mattimore

Both the Mercury News and to a lesser extent, the Chronicle turned a story that didn’t even rise to the level of “Dog bites man,” into news, and the Mercury News, in particular, was determined to wring additional headlines from the “dead dog” story.

During Bella’s week, the Mercury News repeatedly pointed out that the dog story had garnered national attention and that radio-talk shows had been swamped with callers. Apparently, that interest justified the coverage, because the newspaper deemed it their duty to reflect the interests of readers -- not to mention a desire to sell papers.

However, a responsible city paper has another charge: to filter and shape the news and thereby the opinions of its readers. Whether newspapers wish to admit it or not, they do more than simply report the news. Newspapers make the news as well. The fact that owners are “flocking” to get microchips reveals just how powerful their influence can be.

As a result of the dog “nonstory,” negative attention was focused on the Humane Society and policies that have served them admirably well for years are now under attack and subject to revision. Sales of pet microchips increased by 26% in Santa Clara County during the featured week, which may be a good thing, but nevertheless shows how the public’s paranoia may be fed.

The adoptive family was, according to one newspaper, “vilified across the nation,” and its 10-year-old daughter was harassed at school by classmates.

Editors know that readers are titillated by soft news, like a lost dog or another front page story in Saturday’s Mercury News about some high school students caught cheating. Soft stories reported as important front-page news smack of tabloid journalism.

The “give ‘em what they want” attitude can prevail at the New York Post because that newspaper’s lurid coverage is balanced by the New York Times. The attitude cannot and should not be the norm in a one-paper major metropolitan city like San Jose or, for that matter, in San Francisco, which has for all intents and purposes become a one-paper city as well.

That is not to say that the news need be boring or that editors need ignore human interest issues altogether. It is a matter of balance. Because the story about a lost dog has legs (excuse both this pun and the one to follow), does not mean that a paper’s editors should run with it for days on end.

The author retired as the chairman of the social studies department at South San Francisco High School in 2002 and now writes about a variety of issues. His letters and opinions have been published in the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, and the San Francisco Chronicle.