Public outrage requires nuanced critique

I first became aware of “A Dog’s Purpose” after watching a trailer for the film at a nearby movie theater. A January release (which is always the mark of cinematic excellence), the film follows the story of a dog who continuously reincarnates and uses that experience to find meaning. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. The trailer made the film look as schmaltzy and unimaginative as possible, and if you believe the critics that’s pretty accurate. I had no interest in ever seeing it (and frankly I still don’t), so I just sat back and waited for it to inevitably be forgotten.

Yet something very different happened instead. Not long before it hit theaters, TMZ obtained a video of footage from the making of the film in which a trainer forcibly shoves a German Shepherd into water. The video also seemed to suggest that the dog almost drowned in the process. The article details, “The dog eventually got in the water — or was forced in — but was quickly submerged. It’s unclear if the dog going under was scripted, but someone immediately yelled, ‘Cut it!’” and handlers rushed to the animal” (TMZ, Terrified German Shepherd Forced Into Turbulent Water, 1.18.2017).

This was picked up by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They urged the public to boycott the film and showed the video to whoever would listen. The video greatly hurt the box office results of a movie that had previously been expected to do quite well (Los Angeles Times, “A Dog’s Purpose was supposed to be a hit, until animal-abuse controversy threw the studio’s plan out the window,” 1.26.2017).

Then, on Feb. 3rd, American Humane, the animal rights organization who facilitate the “No Animals Were Harmed” program, released an investigative report that essentially concluded that the video was highly edited in a way that mischaracterized what happened on the set.

According to the report, “The findings of the independent investigation confirm that no animals were harmed in those scenes and numerous preventative safety measures were in place.” Moreover, American Humane found that, “The two scenes shown in the edited video were filmed at different times.

The first video was stopped after the dog showed signs of stress. The dog was not forced to swim in the water at any time.” This was also supported, as noted in the report, by the New York Times investigation (American Humane, “Independent Investigative Report on A Dog’s Purpose Finds Edited Video Mischaracterized What Happened on the Set,” 2.3.2017).

While I could very easily use this as an excuse to feel morally superior, it’s admittedly understandable why a lot of people fell for it. It’s video evidence. You can see what appears to be animal abuse yourself. And even though TMZ is far from a reputable news source, it did gain some credibility after exposing a video of Ray Rice attacking his then-fiancee Janay Palmer two years ago.

I’m not blaming people for believing it, especially after it starting being reported by legitimate, mainstream news media.

This incident demonstrates the existence of an industry of outrage that profits from knee-jerk reactions to emotional stimulus. TMZ, as a source of something that could theoretically be described as news, had a journalistic obligation to investigate the video’s validity before posting it to their website.

Finding the unedited video would have been more accurate, but it also would not have been newsworthy.

TMZ didn’t pursue the truth because not pursuing the truth generated attention and therefore produced profit.

But, what makes this incident particularly frightening is that it represents a failure to adapt based on necessity. We live in an political and cultural era that has come to be defined by the spread of misinformation and rise of outrage culture, a trend that I imagine most of Vassar’s population is astutely aware of. Even as we claim to be vigilant, we have dismissed the problem as exclusive to groups and systems of belief that conflict with our own. We choose to believe that news is fake when it conflicts with our beliefs and choose to believe that news is real when it doesn’t.

In this case, TMZ chose to believe the video because it profited them, PETA chose to believe the video because it confirmed their preconceived notions about the world and the public chose to believe the video because it allowed them to feel good about standing up for animal rights without actually doing anything.

Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that this incident had a very real and very negative impact on people’s lives. Had it not been caught, those involved in the film could have lost their careers, and despite the video being disproved a project that presumably took a great deal of time and money has been relegated to be a financial failure (or at least less of a financial success then it likely would have been).

Fake news and outrage culture are not victimless.

Bringing attention to the cause of animal rights does not negate its negative impact on these people, nor does it counteract the growing trend towards fake news and impulsive thinking. We, as a society, have to be more deliberate in directing our outrage and more discerning with our news sources.

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