Ideas

What dogs do for newspapers — and democracy

It’s quantifiable: Editors are suckers for cute pups. But we have a defense!

Dan Zedek/Globe Staff

Earlier this month, The Washington Post devoted almost 600 words to a story titled “D.C. woman spends $35,000 in search for missing dog.” The article (which, remarkably, was actually a follow-up, running a full year after the dog vanished) was quickly picked up by publications as diverse as The Seattle Times and England’s Daily Mail.

The Post’s wayward D.C. dog, it turns out, was one of thousands of canines making the news rounds this month. Along with “Passenger’s dog disappears from Delta Air Lines flight” and “Missing Brooklyn Heights dog reunited with owner,” there were dogs being mistreated, dogs fighting crime, and a Wall Street Journal piece about dogs wearing fitness trackers.

Long before Laika—the 1950s Soviet “space dog”—expired on her journey into orbit, editors understood the appeal of a good dog story. In today’s competitive media environment, it’s become even more of a truism that wet noses and waggy tails are nothing to be sniffed at. “There is no newspaper that doesn’t include stories like this,” says Matthew Baum, a professor of global communications at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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But can the so-called dog effect actually be quantified? A study in last month’s Political Science & Politics set out to answer that question. The authors of the study—“What’s a Dog Story Worth?”—compiled a list of dog-related national news articles that appeared in The New York Times (“the paper of record”) over a 12-year period. Then they calculated the rate at which these stories were subsequently picked up and reprinted by regional papers, compared to items of similar prominence and length but devoid of dogs.

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What the study found is that 2.6 dog-related stories ran for every one with no dog in it. “Thus,” the authors wrote, “we conclude that dogs are an important factor in news decisions.”

Joseph Uscinski, a coauthor of the study and professor of political science at the University of Miami, sees these figures as a way to measure the influence of entertainment as a news priority. “It isn’t always about giving people the most informative news, but about bringing readers in,” Uscinski says of the newsroom selection process.

On the face of it, the idea that newspapers might trawl for readers this way is a little unsettling. We know about the online prevalence of cats with their heads stuck in boxes (lolz), but here we’re talking about serious decisions being made by media professionals.

In an e-mail, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory dismissed the idea that this was something to be embarrassed about. “People like stories with animals, and who are we to say they can’t have them?”

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When it comes to humanizing stories, dogs “are a very tried and true way to help add that layer,” McGrory said. Especially certain dogs. “We’re really going to say no to a story about an abandoned dog or a heroic dog, a lost dog or a guide dog, preferably a larger dog, especially a sporting dog? Absolutely not.”

According to Baum, who has written extensively on the prevalence of “soft news,” we shouldn’t conclude from the study that news coverage has suddenly gone into a tailspin. “There has never been a time when this sort of news hasn’t appeared,” he says. “People have a limited tolerance for politics and public policy, so you have to entertain them.”

In fact, Baum says, an apparently frivolous item about, say, the president’s pooch, far from being a distraction from the important news of the day, may play a role in bringing bigger stories to a wider public. “A silly story may touch on serious issues, so that next time a reader encounters those issues, they’ll have some context to understand them,” he says. “It helps bring politics down from Mount Olympus, to average people, in a language they can understand, and that can change things.”

Uscinski and his coauthors take this argument and run with it, claiming that the inclusiveness of dog stories could be “good for democracy.” As Uscinski puts it, “People might not have paid much attention to [the notorious US military prison] Abu Ghraib, but then you have dogs barking at prisoners and they do. A lot of stories about Hurricane Katrina didn’t proliferate, but the story about a dog shelter did. This style of reporting can bring people into the process.”

There may be a flaw in this line of thinking, given that dogs tend to wander into serious events unpredictably and relatively infrequently. Unless news outlets start running headlines like “Dehydrated dog found tied to park bench as global warming takes its toll” or “Bo Obama celebrates sixth birthday as president signs federal child care bill,” they’ll mostly be sprinkling in dogs like chocolate chips in a bag of trail mix—which, of course, raises the probability of the eat-around.

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Uscinski, for his part, shrugs off such criticism. After all, he says, “the fact that you are writing an article about dogs only proves the point of my article.”

Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.

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