The best bear story ever

This story was originally posted on J-Source back in 2011, but is no longer available on that site.  I reposted it here after a friend requested to use it in an ethics class.

“The best bear story ever.” That was the subject line of an e-mail I recently received. The focus of the story was a bear sighting in Cleveland. The way it was reported was the focus of a controversy that crossed the border. In order to truly appreciate why, you have to watch the video below.

 

 

Hysterical? Yes—but perhaps not in the way intended. I showed it to my 11-year-old son and he responded, “Is this real?” About a million people watched it on various YouTube uploads in the past two years, and judging from many of the comments, didn’t understand the story was “satirical.” In one Calgary newsroom, talk of including a cut-out bear in stories of a similar nature became a running gag.

All of the colleagues I shared this story with thought it was funny. Some said, “He must have been joking.” But as a testament to the quality of current news coverage, none was able to say with certainty if it was a case of Will Ferrell-style local news reporting or comedy by design.

Joke or not—this bear story had legs (sorry, couldn’t resist). The reporter, Todd Meany, bore the brunt of worldwide criticism and had to deal with local viewers who were furious about the way he treated what they deemed a serious story.

I contacted Meany to get his take on what happened. Here’s his emailed response to my questions, with minor edits for ease of reading:

1) Was I surprised that some viewers took it seriously?

Somewhat.  We are a fairly traditional news station. People expect humour from our anchors during cross talk or during kicker stories, but don’t often see it when it comes to the reporters, because it’s rarely done. For those who are familiar with me, they know my sense of humour and realized the satire. Those who didn’t get the satire might have thought it was dumb, but I did attempt to include information into the piece.  What was seen, who saw the bear, where it was spotted, when it was spotted, and why people shouldn’t worry about it.  I hoped that would at least appease the traditional viewers.

 2) Did the interviewees know it was going to be satirical?

 The witness did not–the naturalist/park ranger did to an extent.  I didn’t even know that it was going to be satirical until the day was half over?

 Quick backgrounder for you on the genesis of the story: Bear spotted by several witnesses. I get assigned the story. No video/no photos, just one witness.  We interviewed the witness and had some broll of the locations where the bear was spotted. We happened upon the nature center where we found the park ranger, who was willing to interview us about bear sightings. I was trying to avoid any file zoo footage of bears, or random bear stuck in a tree file video.  The ranger offered the cardboard cut out as a joke. We then came up with the idea for the “re-creation”.

 To avoid the witness being part of the satire, I made sure to separate her from the re-creation part of the story, and keep her in the news portion.

 3) How did I feel when it went viral??

 Mixed feelings.  I do a daily viewer feedback segment where people can text/facebook about a topic of the day, so I’m used to getting the good and downright bad in people.  I have pretty thick skin.  When it appeared on youtube, the title was “WJW does a ridiculous story about a bear sighting.”  I was a bit taken back by that: one because that wasn’t my intention, and two because I had never had anything on youtube before. I quickly learned that there is a huge dichotomy in news viewership. The traditional nightly news viewers didn’t care to see the humor in the story, because mainly they are looking for facts and/or an emotional connection, humor is not what they’re looking for. The other half who appreciated it are for lack of a better term, daily show viewers/redditers. Those who enjoy getting information but are also willing to accept it with a touch of humor or satirical analysis.

 So, I was glad for those who saw it for what it was, a funny news story. And for those who thought it was ridiculous and unprofessional, I get it.

Kudos to Meany for having the guts to talk about this so openly.

As for why this story was taken out of context by so many people, it doesn’t help that when you linked to it from the video tab on the FOX website there’s no indication it’s anything but straight news. On a different page, the station actually boasts “Todd Meany report voted best of 2009” in big blue bold letters. In the fine print it’s identified that it was for “funniest local story” as awarded by BuzzFeed. That statement is also somewhat out of context, as it appears BuzzFeed’s award was handed out tongue-in-cheek.

Whether humour was the appropriate format to tell a story about a subject that was a serious concern to the community is another issue entirely. As is not informing the subjects about the treatment of the story, and the idea you can separate the “news portion” from “satire” within the confines of one report. Clearly, that didn’t work.

From a theoretical perspective, this is a perfect example of media logic. Adjust Meany’s script and replace “bear” with “suspect” in some places and it could be a crime story. Basically, news content has become so standardized —with a familiar language, grammar, rhythm, and format—that no matter how over the top the news segment goes, viewers interpret the story as a traditional news report.

In order to keep the audience engaged, and therefore informed, there is a need for innovative reporting. Perhaps Meany crossed the line in that effort. But the most relevant piece of this puzzle is what the reaction to this story says about how news organizations are viewed as a whole. What is the state of journalism when thousands of people think a reporter prancing around with a cut-out bear isn’t joking? It appears the anchorman parody is seen by many as a newsroom reality—and that’s bad news for broadcasters.

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