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Moose-killing fences and the lamestream media

Craig Medred
Left: Jessy Coltrane / ADF&G, Right: APD

And we in the media wonder why the public doesn't trust us.

Here's how KTUU Channel 2 reported the news of a moose calf-impaled and dying on the spike-topped fence of Anchorage's Atwood Mansion:

"The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says a certain type of fence is posing a very dangerous problem for moose in Anchorage. Wrought iron fences with spear-like ends can injure and kill a moose...."

Only in the second paragraph of the online version of the report, from what used to be the most influential television news organization in Alaska, is mentioned the actual news that "last Thursday, Fish and Game responded to an incident at the Atwood mansion in West Anchorage. A moose calf tried unsuccessfully to jump over the fence and was severely injured in the process."

And, of course, this isn't quite accurate.

The moose wasn't "severely injured;'' it was mortally wounded. Area wildlife biologist Jessy Coltrane from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had to shoot and kill it to shorten its journey to what was becoming a slow and painful death. This is not a part of the job Coltrane enjoys. Afterward, she feels about as good as you would if you had to go out in your yard and kill and injure a moose calf to end its suffering, and stop its bawling.

The KTUU story went on to soft pedal the problem with the fence at the $2 million mansion, and highlight the efforts of the Atwood Foundation, which manages the mansion, to fix some of the fence, which is obviously a lot cheaper than fixing all of the fence. And then the story tried to shift the focus fully away from the current problem in the news, noting that "one incident that Fish and Game responded to happened two winters ago in a Rabbit Creek neighborhood. A sharp-ended fence impaled a moose when it tried to leap over the fence. Coltrane says the homeowner was upset and claimed she would fix the problem, but never did."

Sort of like the Atwood Mansion "never did.'' Or, OK, in fairness, half did.

And what has all of this to do with public faith in the media?

Well sad to say, Maria Downey, a longtime on-air personality at KTUU News, happens to sit on the Atwood Foundation board of directors, which anyone could discover by going to the foundation's website. Some Alaskans did. One of them almost immediately posted a query on Downey's Facebook page wanting to know what was going on, something which was reported by Alaska Dispatch.

That Downey, a KTUU News celebrity, was connected to the sad story of the moose-murdering fence that retired area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott thinks belongs only around the fortress of Vlad the Impaler was known to many in the community. And yet KTUU News, which is supposed to be a "news'' organization, somehow left this information out of its report. I know Downey well enough to doubt that she asked for such treatment. These things happen too often in newsrooms, mostly because the media can't stomach becoming "part of the story," let alone reporting on itself.

News reporting is the business of picking and choosing facts and arranging them into a story. It is an imperfect business. It is a subjective business, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Some of the most slanted stories I've ever read were those defended by overpaid editors as "objective.'' How could they be otherwise, they demanded to know, "they have both sides represented?'' And the simple answer is "because not all information is the same.''

Journalism isn't a stenography business, or at least it isn't supposed to be. Journalism is supposed to be a truth business. Reporters aren't supposed to just write down anything people say; they're supposed to try to figure out whose uttering factual information and who, as the state's former governor used to say, is just "making things up.'' It's sad, in fact, that journalism has tried to hide behind the charade of "objectivity'' since the days of single-newspaper-town dominance aimed almost entirely at making huge profits with monopolies.

Because nobody really expects journalism to be objective. For one thing, that's impossible. For another, it's generally the territory of fools. Intelligence leads one to conclusions based on facts, and conclusions are by their nature subjective. Reporters make conclusions by the dozens when they report a story. Every time they decide what to put into that story, they make a subjective decision.

And that is why journalists need to be "fair.''

Fairness -- not objectivity -- is really the cornerstone of this business. Or, maybe more accurately, fairness and honesty. News organizations build their reputations on these things. The reputation of journalism stands on fairness and honesty, which is why all journalists have a responsibility to go beyond the pale to be frank and open when a fellow journalist gets caught up in a story.

Downey had nothing directly to do with that poor moose calf dead on the Atwood fence. But she has a lot to do with it indirectly. She sits on the Atwood Foundation board. The board makes decisions about how to spend Atwood Foundation money. Downey is in a position to say: "Fix that damn fence and solve this problem.''

Oh yes, someone might argue, she's only one vote on the board. True enough. But she might be the most influential vote in this case. Can you imagine the brouhaha that would ensue if a news personality as visible as Downey were to announce she was quitting the Atwood Foundation board because it refused to spend the money to fix the Vlad the Impaler fence murdering moose calves in Anchorage?

Seymour the Dancing Moose is, for God's sake, the mascot for the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau. Anchorage residents love their moose when they aren't hating them for tearing up their ornamental trees. But even then, they all love the moose calves. How can you not love a moose calf? And it is moose calves the Atwood fence is particularly good at killing. Four in the last three years, the KTUU story did note sort of in passing.

Why that didn't lead the reporter who wrote the story to ask some tough questions about the supposed "fix'' to Vlad's fence is unclear, but to some in the general public the reason is likely to look like "Marie Downey,'' and that reflects badly not only on KTUU but on all of us as journalists.

Yeah, there's a reason people don't trust us. We're sometimes less than fully honest. And we all too often protect our friends and colleagues because, well, you know, they are our friends colleagues.... Unfortunately, this is what most people would call a double standard. And double standards make journalists look less than honest.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.