Journalism is Drowning in Sensationalism, and Wildlife is Paying the Price for it

You’re hiking with your family on the mountainous terrains of the Brenta Dolomites, in northern Italy. As you look through bushes for some berries, you see a large, dark shape laying just a few metres ahead of you. You can’t quite make out what it is as it’s partly covered by the green vegetation. Until, all of a sudden it moves and you can tell it’s a brown bear. You turn to your step dad, just a few meters behind you, who looks confident and calm and beckons you back. He saw the bear too, but he’s not alarmed. As you slowly make your way away from the bear and towards the rest of the family – who had stayed behind and still hadn’t noticed that extra presence on the hill – you regularly check over your shoulder to keep an eye on the bear, who is now standing on both its legs sniffing the air. The bear doesn’t seem to have noticed you, or at least it’s not paying you much attention, possibly too busy looking for some munchies or a good spot for a nap. You continue your descent down the hill, at this point gaining a few good metres on the bear, until you reach the rest of the family. As everyone becomes aware of the bear, the bear picks up the presence of people on the hill, and in the blink of an eye it disappears out of sight.

This brief, wild encounter happened on a sunny day of May (2020). “You” in this case is a 12 year old boy .The footage of the close and pacific encounter, recorded by the step dad, soon went viral on the internet and was shared by many international news outlets.

However, not all news sources reported the story accurately as it appears in the original video. Rather, some articles writing in sensationalistic terms twisted the facts of the story. Sensationalism, as defined by the Cambridge dictionary, is “the act by newspapers, television, etc. of presenting information in a way that is shocking or exciting”. In this case, for example, the prominent British news channel BBC reported this bear-people encounter as: “Italian boy escapes brown bear” and “Boy, 12, followed down mountain by brown bear1 – not at all a fair representation of what actually happened.

Aside being unprincipled, this sensationalistic way of reporting the news, aimed at maximising the number of clicks per article, can be detrimental to the conservation of the species that are unfairly portrayed. Recent studies found it common for social media posts and the news to take a biased/sensationalistic stance when sharing news especially on human-carnivore encounters2,3.  This sensationalism does nothing but amplify ancestral fear of and animosity towards wildlife in the minds of the public, damaging the already compromised reputation of these animals and possibly affecting their long-term conservation.

In Europe, carnivore attacks on people are rare and mainly non-fatal. For instance, a recent study4 has found that 291 bear attacks have occurred during the 2000-2015 period across the European continent, with 19 of them being fatal. The authors stress that “to increase both human and bear safety, and promote coexistence, it is crucial to gain a deeper understanding, and promote public knowledge of the riskiest circumstances that may trigger an aggressive response by brown bears.” One such circumstance is the presence of cubs with the female predators. Another one is the lack of correct responses by people when they come across such wildlife. For this very reason, rather than going for a sensationalistic approach, this latest human-bear encounter on the Brenta Dolomites could have and should have been used to strongly emphasise this family’s exemplary behaviour upon spotting the bear (eg. slowly and calmly walking away, whilst keeping an eye on the bear).

In an interview5, Alessandro, the 12-year-old boy in the video, said this was a lifetime experience for him and he wishes he’ll get to see more bears in the wild in the future.

The social media and news channels are a double-edged sword. They are great to raise public awareness and concern, but if used wrongly they can do more harm than good and actually exacerbate already delicate issues, such as the conservation of wildlife and particularly of large carnivore species. With great power comes great responsibility, which in the media context sensationalism deeply undermines.

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  2. Bombieri, G., Naves, J., Penteriani, V., Selva, N., Fernández-Gil, A., López-Bao, J.V., Ambarli, H., Bautista, C., Bespalova, T., Bobrov, V. and Bolshakov, V., 2019. Brown bear attacks on humans: a worldwide perspective. Scientific reports9(1), p.8573.
  3. Nanni, V., Caprio, E., Bombieri, G., Schiaparelli, S., Chiorri, C., Mammola, S., Pedrini, P. and Penteriani, V., 2020. Social Media and Large Carnivores: Sharing Biased News on Attacks on Humans. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution8, p.71.
  4. Bombieri, G., Nanni, V., Delgado, M.D.M., Fedriani, J.M., López-Bao, J.V., Pedrini, P. and Penteriani, V., 2018. Content analysis of media reports on predator attacks on humans: toward an understanding of human risk perception and predator acceptance. Bioscience68(8), pp.577-584.

cover image credits: Photo by Federico Artusi on Unsplash

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