Friday, February 22, 2008

Snakes on the plains?

The morning got off to a nasty start for ophidiophobians in Oklahoma City when they opened Friday’s newspaper to see a headline sprawled atop page one warning: “Big snakes could slither into state.”

The problem with the alarming spread in The Oklahoman – replete with the headshot of a frightening-looking Burmese python – is that the danger of a snake invasion is really quite remote, as the newspaper's own story makes clear.

So, why did the Oklahoman play this non-story in the sensational fashion it did? I left a phone message for editor Ed Kelley and, so far, haven’t heard back.

But I did have an interesting conversation with zoologist Gordon Rodda of the U.S. Geographic Survey, one of the scientists whose research formed the basis for the story. Here is what he said:

The USGS undertook a study of what climates in the United States theoretically could support the spread of a growing population of non-indigenous Burmese pythons that have taken up residence in the Florida Everglades. The areas warm and humid enough to support the non-poisonous constrictors could include Oklahoma, depending on how global warming shakes out over the next 100 years.

“But, if the implication in the newspaper story is that it is going to happen next Thursday, that’s irresponsible,” said Gordon. “It is a very dramatic way they portrayed it.”

The particular irony of the Oklahoman's story is that it was so thoroughly reported by staffer Josh Rabe that no reasonable editor could have inadvertently misconstrued its significance.

In but one example, Josh quotes a local snake expert as saying it is “just absurd” to fear a Burmese python invasion in Oklahoma. “If you put one out in the front yard on a day like today,” said snake breeder Bob Clark in a week when low temperatures were in the mid-20s, “you would have a snake-sickle by the end of the day.”

To be sure, an onslaught of Burmese pythons would terrifying. The snakes can grow to lengths of 20 feet and become as fat as a telephone pole, says Gordon. Although the creatures are not poisonous, they instantly wrap themselves around their prey, squeezing the life out of the victim before gulping it down.

Although the snakes are capable of traveling as far 20 miles in a day, Gordon can't imagine them bellying all the way from Florida to Oklahoma City. “It is unlikely they would keep moving long enough in the same direction, given the randomness of their movements,” he explains.

If the danger is negligible of telephone poll-sized Burmese pythons slithering 1,500 miles from the Everglades to Oklahoma City, then why would the newspaper have played the story in the way it did?

“With newspapers,” says Gordon, “it’s their business to make a big deal out of things.”

Is it any wonder why four out of five people don’t trust the media?


Blogger Unknown said...

Congratulations. You just bit -- pun intended -- on a Tabloid Teaser. A sensational, racy headline, linked to a tame story that supports it in a detached, literal sense if not the actual spirit of it.

This is nothing new, even in America. I can remember falling for these nearly 30 years ago when I was in the service. The San Antonio News, a rock 'em sock 'em afternoon paper, used to do these killer rack cards that would hopelessly hype a lame human-interest story inside the paper.

I still have my favorite, that I swiped on the spot when I read it:

"Mother Kills 3 ... And Eats Them! Story on pg 7a."

Turned out mom was a bear at the National Zoo.

For all the drama expended by the Daily Jokelahoman, there may have been more beef to their snake story than the Times' investigation of John McCain. Kinda depressing to think about, isn't it?

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to know why it played like it did, check out the previous day's front page of USA Today. Whoever the author might be ;) might have run across the same report the day before the USA Today article and had the good sense to know it wasn't newsworthy. That being said, news agencies tend to follow a pack mentality and certain corporate higher-ups might have told the reporter to write it up for page 1 anyway, despite his reservations.

2:38 PM  

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