The misrepresentation of Pit Bull breeds in the media has been reflected in American culture. As these dogs were incorporated into World War I propaganda, they were perceived as symbols of courage and strength, the archetype of American dog breeds5. When, in the 1920s and 1930s, American Staffordshire Terrier “Pete the Pup” starred in the comedy Our Gang, later known as The Little Rascals, Pit Bulls were considered “nanny dogs” and family-friendly pets7. When the media focused heavily on illegal dog fighting rings and gang culture in the 1970s and 1980s, Pit Bulls were called demonic and unpredictable. Through their many roles, they have shown versatility and resilience, and lately they have suffered greatly.
Pit Bulls in the Press: Misrepresentation, Culture and Society
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), there is a “great deal of confusion associated with the label ‘Pit Bull,’” as it does not refer to a single breed of dog, but rather to a group of breeds with similar characteristics1. These characteristics include short hair, a wide skull and shoulders, muscle definition, stocky build and a deep jawline, the combination of which create a dog that manages to strike fear into a perfect stranger. The term ‘Pit Bull’ is derived from the bulldog, which was originally bred as a hunting dog for large game, but has since developed into a “loyal companion rather than a working dog.”1 Their history as “gripping dogs” for hunters follows them into modern society, as many of these dogs have been inhumanely pitted against one another as well as other animals for sport and for human entertainment1. It is because of these illegal fighting rings that ‘Pit Bull’ type breeds have become the subject of myths about locking jaws and demonic temperaments. They have made their way into headlines as the perpetrators of the “dog bite phenomenon” which has been exacerbated by reports of dog attacks in the media.
Just as many types of dogs share “Pit Bull” characteristics, journalists utilize similar tactics when approaching stories about pit bull disturbances. Scare tactic journalism is used to report distressing news in a way that attracts and maintains audience attention or readership2. These stories feed off of public paranoia, using emotionally charged language and generalizations, ultimately attempting to apply an event to the life of an individual reader. Along with conspiracy theories and health scares, Pit Bull-type dogs are especially subject to this journalistic fear tactic.
At the heart of this particular scare tactic, is the common misuse of the term “Pit Bull.” “Pit Bull” is a negative slang term referring to the American Staffordshire Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, or similar breeds3. It has ties to the dog fighting rings, which have plagued the media in recent years. In fact, the American Kennel Club purposefully registers these dogs as American Staffordshire Terriers in order to avoid the...