In early May, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed a spider during an event with several schoolchildren. That prompted a journalist with the website Talking Points Memo to call People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to see what their reaction might be. TPM summed up the animal-rights organization’s two-sentence statement as calling the governor “thoughtless.”
Here’s the statement PETA emailed to reporter Hunter Walker: “He probably did it without thinking. Some people put the spider outside, but spiders are often scary to people, and that can prevent them from pondering their worth.”
When a host of other news outlets followed TPM’s story, descriptions of PETA’s reaction varied — and, in some cases, veered into inaccuracy. Some news organizations said PETA “slams” Christie or was “crying foul” or was “angered” over the incident, playing up the group’s image as a zealous — or overzealous — advocate for animals. The New York Daily News said that PETA “portrayed the insect-killing governor as a thoughtless villain”; WABC-TV in New York said the group was “outraged” and Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin observed at the end of a notes column that the governor was likely “delighted at being the recipient of the wackos’ anger.”
This has happened before to PETA, usually involving small stories on relatively minor subjects. So this time, senior vice president of communications Lisa Lange decided to contact every news outlet that had seemed to overstate the group’s reaction.
“A reporter will call, and sometimes they’ll have their story written in their mind, [thinking] ‘We’re sure PETA is going to give us an inflammatory statement,’ ” said Lange, who noted that PETA felt Walker’s story for Talking Points Memo was relatively fair, but that many other news outlets exaggerated his reporting. “But we gave a measured statement. They wrote the story they wanted to write.”
According to Lange, PETA wrote emails to 60 media outlets. Forty-five didn’t respond, six changed their stories, seven refused to change their stories and two published snarky updates noting the group’s objections. CNN, the Associated Press and Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Bret Baier were among those who got the story right, Lange said.
Judy Kurtz, who wrote a piece for The Hill headlined “PETA goes after Christie for killing a spider,” said she wasn’t responsible for the headline but stood by her story, which characterized PETA as “crying foul.” “I can understand their concerns,” said Kurtz, who spoke with the group, but declined to change her story. “But with my story, I think they may be overreacting.”
According to PETA, the Daily News dropped the word “villain” from their story’s online version after the group contacted them. And Breitbart News wrote a correction, which read, in part, “contrary to our original reportage, it is inaccurate to say that PETA ‘blasted’ Christie or that he was ‘in hot water’ with the group.”
One problem for groups such as PETA: stories like these are easy filler for TV newscasts or blog posts, leading some journalists to cobble together a few paragraphs without the research they might devote to a longer story.
“The phenomenon of needing to add spin to things is almost an inherent issue with aggregated news,” said Walker of TPM, who also stood by his report. “It’s interesting to me that rather than adding a layer of reporting or analysis, maybe putting an item into context, the easiest thing for a lot of people seems to be to add a layer of snark.”
Lange said something similar happened in 2009, when PETA wrote a light-hearted response to President Obama killing a fly during an interview, only to find reports focused on the group’s use of the phrase “executive insect execution.”
So why comment? “I think there will come a time when we won’t answer because we know we can’t be guaranteed that we’ll be quoted [accurately],” Lange said. “Years ago, we responded to every single press entity. But there’s been a shift in how people report the news.”