Lifting Its Leg Against the Hydrant of Journalism, the Toronto Star Editorial Board Weighs In

The other day, I posted about that bafflingly bad article in the Toronto Star about pit bulls. Today, their editorial page doubled down on the codswallop. “Pit bull ban is working,” the headline in the print edition insisted. “The evidence is in,” the editorial proclaims, “and it should be enough to muzzle any further attempt to reverse Ontario’s successful pit bull ban.”

Wait. Two reporters, in what the Star hyperbolically describes as an “investigation,” went through one set of data from one municipality (or as the Star puts it, they “crunched” numbers) and drew some questionable conclusions utterly lacking in context. As a friend with much more knowledge of the craft than I have put it, “Where was the journalism?”

Now, this has been compounded with anecdotal references to a number of admittedly grisly attacks. And if you disagree, well, you’re just as misguided as those American gun nuts.

In a moment of unintentional hilarity, the editorial informs us, “It’s a misnomer to call it a ban.” Indeed. So how come your headline calls it a ban, and the headline on your website uses the B-word twice?

The Star’s Dogged Pursuit of… I Don’t Know What

On the front page of today’s Toronto Star, there was an article headed “Pit bull ban put bite on attacks, city stats show.

I’m still not sure about its point. The authors, Eric Andrew-Gee and Joel Eastwood, seem certain. In the next-to-last paragraph, they write the province’s ban on pit bulls, enacted in 2005, “appears to have done what it set out to do.”

This thesis is “supported” by rather questionable evidence. Andrew-Gee and Eastwood — the latter described in his byline as a “data analyst” — comment on data they received from the City of Toronto’s Animal Services department. They report that in 2001, a total of 237 pit bulls — actually, pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, and American pit bull terriers — were registered in Toronto, and there were 79 reports of bites by this type of dog in the city that year. In 2004, of 984 registered pit bulls, 168 bites by these breeds were reported.

What I find noteworthy there: in 2001, the ratio of bites to dogs is 33.3 percent; in 2004, it’s 17.1%. I don’t think we can draw an accurate trend line by comparing two years so close together, but if the Star wants to present this data as definitive, then I have to ask: why the ban? It would appear pit bulls were getting less aggressive over time. Which would be in keeping with an overall trend; indeed, the writers comment that “per capita bite numbers are down overall in the last decade.”

In 2013, there were 13 reported pit bull bites, out of a population of 501 dogs. Less than 3%. An order of magnitude less than in 2001. The Star reporters explain that the City of Toronto requires pit bulls to be muzzled in public and sterilized, “procedures that tend to make dogs less aggressive.” Which makes one wonder (although the reporters don’t raise the question) why the province banned pit bulls rather than pass legislation requiring them to be muzzled and sterilized.

Something else the writers of the article seemed not to comment on. A line graph, titled, “The effect of the pit bull ban,” indicates that Jack Russell Terriers were among the most bite-prone breeds in 2001 — a ratio of bites to registered dogs of more than 25%. But they weren’t banned. And in 2013, incidents involving them are almost unheard of (from the line graph, it appears to be less than 2%). So what happened there?

Never mind. The ban “appears to have done what it set out to do.” Even though, “since the pit bull ban, other ‘bully type breeds’ have exploded in popularity. The number of boxers, a muscular German animal bred for fighting, leapt from 263 to 839 between 2005 and 2013. They are now the third most biting-prone breed in the city.”

See, that encapsulates my problem with the ban, and this article, in a nutshell. We banned pit bulls, and the sort of cowardly jackass who views his dog as a vehicle through which to express his own aggression just moved on to some other kind of dog. When I was very young, it was German shepherds. Then it was Dobermans and then Rottweilers. Then pit bulls.

So I couldn’t help but conclude that this story was a whole lot of nothing. The funny thing is, the Star has an animal behaviour consultant, Yvette Van Veen, who contributes columns. In November 2011, she wrote one wondering “Where’s the data that shows pit bull ban is working?” She commented on the difficulty she had in deciphering statistics she received from City Hall. She quoted the same spokesperson at Animal Services, Mary Lou Leiher, who is quoted in today’s article. In 2011, Leiher said, “dog bites (by breed) are usually a reflection of the breed’s popularity, not its aggressive nature.” Van Veen’s conclusion was that if you want to reduce the chance of people being bitten by a dog, you educate the public and you enforce the leash laws.

Since Michael Cooke took over as editor, the Star has been quite fond of “investigations” and exposés and banner headlines promising to tell you what the government doesn’t want you to know. Some of it has been valuable coverage of matters of public interest. This underreported, self-contradicting article seems to be just an example of sensationalism.