By Sean Willett
If you started reading this editorial expecting to learn about conclusive Bigfoot-related evidence, you will be disappointed. In fact, if you begin reading most articles that sport unbelievable, sensationalist headlines, you will be disappointed. That is, if you begin reading them at all.
To get this out of the way, Bigfoot isn’t real. There is no such thing as Bigfoot or the Yeti, and there is absolutely zero evidence of scientific interest that even begins to hint at their possible existence.
“But wait,” you may be saying, “didn’t a researcher just prove that Bigfoot was real using DNA evidence?” No, that didn’t happen. What did happen was that an Oxford scientist analyzed a selection of DNA samples attributed to the mythical Himalayan Yeti in 2013, and found that they almost all belonged to known animals. Though there were two exceptions, they turned out to be perfect matches with an extinct species of Himalayan bear, and are probably the result of members of the extinct species interbreeding with other populations.
However, it is understandable that you were confused, since the Calgary Herald’s original Oct. 16 headline for this story was “DNA test proves Bigfoot is roaming Himalayas, says Oxford scientist.” Even though the word “Bigfoot” has since been replaced by “Yeti” on their website, this headline is still more than a little misleading.
Yet the Herald’s Bigfoot-related blunders did not end with that story. A couple days after this article was published, the Herald featured a story entitled “Alberta a hotbed in the hunt for Bigfoot” on the front page of its news extra section. The article mentions the Oxford research and has a short quotation from a skeptical scientist, but mostly revolves around a man who saw something hairy cross a river a few years ago and now spends his life hunting for a made-up animal.
So not only was the original story about the scientific research misreported by the Herald, but it was then quickly overshadowed by a much larger article about cryptozoological nonsense. While this may seem harmless enough on its own, the problems present here are becoming pervasive in journalism.
Bigfoot-truthers are often compared with actual scientists. Sometimes a journalist, in a misguided effort to present both sides of an issue equally, lends legitimacy to a side of a debate that is objectively untrue. This is called a false equivalence, and it pops up quite a bit when issues like the vaccine debate are discussed. Journalists allow anti-vaccination proponents to spew misinformation in an effort to seem unbiased, while at the same elevating the misinformation to the same level of legitimacy as actual scientific fact.
The other problem is the blatantly false, sensationalist headline the Herald slapped on the article about the research at Oxford. Whether it stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding of the outcomes of the research or a deliberate attempt to draw more readers to the story, it is enough to give anyone skimming through the paper the wrong idea about the content of the article. The first couple of paragraphs of the article don’t help either, and do little to actually explain reality.
This is bad journalism, and unfortunately it can be found almost everywhere. Reporting of this kind fosters a misinformed public, especially when combined with fluff pieces that give platforms to delusional fringe groups. People can be led to believe some ridiculous things this way — that vaccines cause autism, that Obamacare will kill grandmas or that Bigfoot is walking through the woods as we speak. Media outlets should feel okay dismissing these ideas for what they are: bullshit.