…or why stopping to think isn’t just for Samwise Gamgee.
Authored by Middle-earth News contributor Martin Burrows.
(Ed: You’ll most likely have noticed that yesterday’s highest profile story surrounding the Hobbit movies was missing from Middle-earth News yesterday. This was a conscious decision as we aspire to maintain high standards of journalism at Middle-earth News. Below, contributor Martin Burrows explains how the story progressed yesterday, why it wasn’t included on Middle-earth News, and why fastest isn’t always best.)
Samwise Gamgee, he knew a thing or two about looking after a horse. He’d likely have been as upset to learn of the avoidable deaths of 2 horses on a farm during the time The Hobbit was in production as he was at leaving Bill the pony at the gates of Moria. He’d also have been as likely to declare “Steady, Gamgee! Think if you can!” when faced with the Associated Press article claiming more than two dozen animal deaths during Hobbit production.
First published in Fox News, there was enough about the article to instantly set off alarm bells for me, even more so than usual about anything Fox News puts out. This was a story that had originally broken 3 months previously – so why was it back now, days from The Hobbit première? Where had the information about all the other animal deaths come from, why had details of the story changed from a few months ago and, perhaps most importantly, how had this story managed to re-emerge in a new form?
I was once given a useful piece of advice from a grizzled old journalist, something to do when dealing with any leak or rumour or story based upon them. Ask yourself, who benefits from this?
So who is benefiting? While its tempting to imagine that rival media companies would be enjoying the discomfort that media giants Warner Bros and MGM must be experiencing as an accusatory spotlight is cast upon them, there is no direct benefit and too much legal risk to any corporation making unsubstantiated claims. Even further into the realms of the conspiracy theory would be wondering if this was some sort of bizarre marketing and publicity stunt, but with a $100 million marketing budget to burn on publicizing the movie, there’s no need for Warner Bros to try ridiculous stunts.
The answer as to who is benefiting is altogether more obvious and contained within the article itself. The article, which on repeated viewings reads rather more like a press release than first appears, actually states that PETA will be organising protests at the various movie premières. It would be remarkable journalistic insight if the writer of the article had been able to predict such a reaction, wouldn’t it? It would, however, be rather less insightful if the article had originated with PETA itself. Who benefits by maximising exposure and awareness of their work? PETA does.
Anyone believing two concerned former wranglers would have the clout to take a story global is naïve at best. It requires a respected global organisation with the clout of PETA to do something like that, but even PETA needs a hook to hang a story on, and this time the hook was a Hobbit hook.
And oh, what a successful hook it has been. Many media outlets the world over took the story and published it without even a shred of editing, leading to the particularly bizarre situation of a near identical story appearing on The Huffington Post and Fox News. I’ve not been able to find even one attempt to investigate the story in all the outlets I found it, either specialist Tolkien media or mainstream media. Instead, its been the perfect example of churnalism in action.
How can a largely unsubstantiated story be so adopted? Its done with a fairly old, but nevertheless very effective trick. Take one or two substantiated and acknowledged facts (the death of 2 horses being mentioned by the production company as being avoidable), and place unsubstantiated or unproven accusations alongside them. The unsubstantiated benefits form a “halo effect,” magically becoming substantiated in the hands of a skilled writer.
Now to be clear, I’m not accusing PETA of any wrongdoing here. PETA have done and continue to do excellent work in the field of animal welfare and the world is a better place for their efforts. What they have had to do, however, is compete for attention in a world of PR and churnalism, and to do so needs a wild story, timed to perfection, to create maximum impact. It’s a desperately sad state of affairs and an awful reflection on what journalism has become in our rolling news channel, instant Internet update world.
The Lord of the Rings production was falsely accused of animal cruelty, but the story did get coverage and its sad that PETA has gone down the same avenue, allegedly to garner publicity. Its sad that by going down this route it has required a number of vehement rebuttals from individuals associated with the production and the farm in question, rebuttals which have only served to drag the story out longer. Its saddest of all, journalistically speaking, that no media outlet that I can find did a scrap of further investigation. Would it have been so demanding to send an agency journalist out to investigate the alleged state of the ground at the farm in question? Unfortunately, in our days of volume churnalism, it would be.
So out of this whole ridiculous situation, where is the truth? That I am not about to speculate on, for the precise reason that I’m unable to go and investigate myself and so won’t write speculation or unsubstantiated claims. I have my suspicions, I have my assessment of the veracity and authenticity of the statements that have been made from both sides, and I have the question I always ask myself – who benefits? If you want to know what really happened, who should you believe? That’s the point at which I’d say don’t be a ninnyhammer and believe it because its written. Be steady, think if you can!
(Ed: Martin’s colorful take on this story may be a little different to the stories we usually run at Middle-earth News, but we felt that publishing this was a good way to highlight our approach to stories. We try very hard to only publish stories that we feel can be relied upon, which may sometimes mean we don’t cover stories that other news outlets do, or we don’t publish them as quickly. We strongly feel, however, that to take the time to investigate and fact check anything we’re not sure about is always the best policy. We want all our readers to feel confident in what they read at Middle-earth News!)