Sensationally yours

No one’s called about Mercy today.

That’s a relief, but there’s more to say, on a couple topics and for a couple reasons.

First, last week, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – the ASPCA – offered an interview and the insights of one of its spokesmen on the psychology of animal cruelty and human reactions to it. I went through with the interview but we temporarily held off on a story after Mercy’s owner died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Secondly, the Missoula Independent ran a column criticizing the media coverage, including the Missoulian’s. In this business, criticism comes with the job and a response isn’t always warranted.

In this case, the stories about the cat elicited so much interest and such emotional reactions from readers, I wanted to share some more information on reporting this story. Here’s a response and some continued “navel gazing,” as the Indy described its piece. I’ll also second the weekly’s apologies for doing so.

Here’s a recap in the briefest terms. Last week, police responded to some loud screaming. The cops found a near-dead kitten at the scene. Animal Control tried to save it and asked for the media’s help raising money for surgery. The cat was euthanized because it couldn’t be saved. The owner ended his life. Police then said the man reported having a history of mental illness.

The story of animal abuse brought in more phone calls, voicemails and emails than any other single story in my experience. A woman called sobbing from Las Vegas. An email arrived from Kuwait. People were viciously angry at the man, and it seemed like everyone wanted to adopt that specific cat.

The editorial suggested the coverage fomented the rabid response. It’s a sound practice to question our own journalistic choices, but in this case, a conversation with the ASPCA spokesman suggests public outrage in animal cruelty isn’t artificially manufactured.

Randall Lockwood, PhD, senior vice president of forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects for the ASPCA, said the reactions people had in these stories are typical of other animal cruelty incidents. One of the most common questions he hears from reporters and prosecutors is why they receive so many phone calls about one single pet when they see repeated acts of violence toward humans and hear from no one.

He paraphrased a typical question from an attorney: “Why do I get 4,000 (calls and letters) about this dog burning case, yet I have a child abuse and a homicide and a rape that I’ve gotten three letters about?”

Nearly everyone can relate to caring for a dog or a cat, Lockwood said. More than two thirds of American households have pets. And that’s not all.

“There’s the perception that they are truly innocent victims. What could a kitten have done to justify that?”

When it comes to humans, people perceive there are other advocates who will look after the victims of crime. When it comes to animals, Lockwood said the public feels compelled to speak on their behalf.

“They know what it’s like to hold a cat, or they can empathize with what that animal might have gone through. And it is much easier to relate to the suffering of one kitten, perhaps. You can hear it, see it, touch it.”

He also said it can be easier for people to grasp the suffering of one cat than that of hundreds of thousands in Haiti. Many people called to find out how they could adopt that kitten in particular and donate to her specifically.

“That’s kind of the way we are wired,” Lockwood said.

In a dog burning case in Atlanta a couple years ago, he said a judge received 30,000 letters from an outraged public. A local newspaper printed a map showing the letters had been sent from around the world.

The Independent’s piece quotes an academic in the UM School of Journalism asking why the story of an abused cat received better “play” than a double homicide in the Flathead. In the newspaper, the double murders also ran on A1 above the fold.

One cat story ran the day after Animal Control called with the story and a request for donations. On the following day, the emails and phone calls flooded in. The day after that, the cat was euthanized and another story ran. The following day, the man died and a third story ran.

On the Web site, editor Sherry Devlin blocked comments that lauded the tragedy. She earlier blocked those that printed the suspect’s address and called for retribution.

We name suspects in stories. We named Gary Bassett. I called many Bassetts in an attempt to track him down. We knocked on his door. Multiple times. We still are waiting to learn more from the police when they are free to talk.

I emailed a woman who commented online and identified herself as his sister. She has not yet responded. I hope she does, even if she’s mad at the Missoulian and prefers to talk with another outlet.

It doesn’t take an especially intuitive journalist to point out that everyone wants to know more about the man. Yes, we all want to know more about him, and maybe learning more about him will remind us of the reasons these horrid stories should arouse our compassion instead of, or maybe after, our rage.

So there’s some more background. This information isn’t to make a case that our coverage is above reproach, although that would be super. It’s to fill in some of the gaps left open in the editorial calling for balance.

The Missoulian did not get a call for comment from the Indy.

The same woman who identified herself online only as Bassett’s sister said he was a combat veteran and under the care of a psychiatrist. Police said he described himself as being mentally ill.

Here too there’s more to say. We temporarily placed the story of animal cruelty on hold after the owner died, and while I didn’t want to ask Lockwood for a rain check on the interview, I haven’t contacted other sources on this topic. But here’s a small portion of what he has to say.

“I think one consistent theme is this kind of severe cruelty to animals is often indicative of a serious mental disorder, whether it can be one that’s associated with violence directed outwardly or inwardly,” Lockwood said.

He also said it’s important to take animal cruelty seriously for a couple reasons. It can be a warning sign of future violence, and it can also indicate deeper psychological disturbances.

“The level of outrage in animal cruelty cases is tremendous and not that surprising,” Lockwood said. “People are genuinely and I think legitimately fearful of people who are capable of doing these things to animals.”

So he said it’s important the legal system helps restore people who act violently against animals instead of just incarcerate them. The focus should be on prevention.

“The people who commit serious crimes will be back on the street in most cases,” Lockwood said. “So we have to go beyond just holding them accountable and go beyond retribution to what we call restorative justice.”

In this case, the situation appeared to unfold too quickly: “Unfortunately, had he not been so perhaps close to the edge already, taking his animal cruelty seriously could have been the step that could have gotten him the interventions he needed.”

Lockwood pointed to a story that ran last week in Florida. Two women who faced animal cruelty charges were found dead of apparent self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Authorities suspected they had been dead since November.

Many people have called and emailed saying they want to know more about the Missoula case. For today, this is enough.

— Keila Szpaller

3 thoughts on “Sensationally yours

  1. Keila,I think you did an excellent job of reporting the story of Mercy. When something goes horribly wrong, as it did in the case of Gary Bassett’s suicide, some people are quick to point the finger at someone, anyone to take the blame. I contend as I have said before that this Gary was already over the edge or he wouldn’t have committed the atrocious acts on the kitten nor would he have taken his own life. Mental illness is no excuse for being violent. Most mentally ill people do not do these sorts of things. Most clinically depressed people do not abuse animals. This to me is two separate issues. His mental health on one hand and willingness to commit violent, criminal acts on the other. It is my belief that had it not been brought to the public’s attention, he would have continued being violent towards animals and eventually, more than likely, himself and would have taken his own life anyway. I believe that you can slow down the time before people kill themselves but if they are going to do it, nothing will stop them, nothing will prevent it. They will find a reason and a way. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have suicide programs or try to help, but ultimately, it is the individual that decides if he wants to live or die. Gary Bassett was headed right down that road. He must have been or he wouldn’t have done it. The proof is in the pudding. All people make choices for themselves and their lives everyday..good and bad…mentally ill or not and they have to live with and are responsible for those good or bad choices…no one else is. The implication that the press or the people of Missoula”s “mob mentality” influenced or brought this about is ignorant and absurd. People were venting their justified emotions and opinions through a medium that allows them to do just that by blogging. I am not condoning the actions of anyone that would attempt to harass or commit violence on him. Anyone that would do that are being just as criminal as what he did and that is equally wrong. But should newspapers not publish newsworthy stories because of what some people might choose to do? As for balance, his stress or mental health issues were not fodder for the public newspaper. Records are protected by law. Who would have given this balance on Gary Bassett? None of the doctors that treated him, they cannot do that. He wasn’t talking and his family was no where to be found. . To the best of my knowlegde, his family either didn’t know this was happening or knew and didn’t come to his aid. He was a member of their family..why did they not see to it that a family member got the medication and therapy he is available in this town… if you want to point fingers.. but maybe they tried and he was estranged from them and he kept his violent streak from everyone…who knows? It is all conjecture. They probably won’t talk now. We may never know because it was none of our business but when someone breaks the law we do have a right to know about it and express our opinions and ask that in the public interest, justice is done. The story of Mercy came to the light of day and I am glad it did. Kudos to the neighbors for calling the police. Kudos to the Missoula police for bringing charges and Kudos to the Missoulian for having the balls to publish the story and tell the truth and not sweep it under the rug or downplay it’s importance and it was important. As for the Kalispell murders. I knew about them, the story was published. People being violent towards one another happens all the time, we are sadly very use to it and pretty immune to it. Both sides in that situation will get lawyers and it will be decided in court. But as this Lockwood said..people see animal abuse and child abuse as violence against innocents that cannot protect themselves. Mercy wasn’t going to have any lawyers to fight for her. She had no voice except for the people that cared about what happened to her. Decent people that believe that if you act like a criminal, be ready to answer for it. We can understand our neighbors stress all we want but what was Ms. White suggesting we do? That we make an effort to reach out to them and that will make everything better? Maybe in a perfect world. The reality is that reclusive people are reclusive for a reason and often that is because they don’t like people or trust them or want to have anything to do with them. Even if the effort was made by everyone to understand and reach out, there is no guarantee that violence would not happen. I don’t know what she meant by her statement given to the Independent. The statement was nebulous at best. I’m guessing at what she meant. Also, if you want to rag on the Missoulian, why not the TV stations..seeing Mercy in live footage was far more graphic than anything that was written or any pictures published in the paper. Seeing her struggling to get up and how badly she looked was heart wrenching…where’s the criticism for that? Is the Missoulian solely the culprit here? It is my opinion that there shouldn’t be any blame for the TV stations nor for the Missoulian. No blame to any one party should be given, no blame should be given at all. The Missoulian and local media had a job to do and they did it well. This was a series of choices and events that culminated in tragedy and everyone did the best they could. There is more than enough national coverage of Haiti and it’s aftermath. It disheartens me that UM professors would even comment on the reporting of this incident. The Missoulian did nothing wrong and it was not overplayed. Why shouldn’t a story like this be front page news? Maybe if more newspapers did this, we wouldn’t have to read about murders of people so much because the violence is exposed in it’s inception. It’s not too big of a jump from vicious violence to animals to people. Whose side are you on, anyway.. Mr. Card and Ms. White. These are your colleagues in reporting the news. The Independent can’t talk about inflamatory articles and news…they are not lilly white. There’s plenty of inflamatory stuff in the Independent. Trapping is a hot topic. How about if a despondent trapper reads about all the public opinion on trapping and kills himself…is it the Independent’s fault? I don’t think so. What’s the difference? A lot of people hate trappers and a lot of trappers hate non trappers..if violence erupts over all the publicity in the Independent say, a murder..Is it the Independent’s fault. I don’t think so. They are a doing a job as they see fit and that is what the Missoulian did. I don’t understand this hypocrisy. Do you not teach your students in Journalism to report it like it is. Stick to the facts..who, what, where, when and why? In this case, is there an answer to why? Quote what people say, like they say it. Isn’t this what you would teach in your classes? The Missoulian and it’s editor and reporters did just that with people and events that were important in this situation, accurately. Stories of violence are hard to read by their very nature and are sensationalistic by their very nature but that doesn’t mean they should be not be written about or down played or sugar coated or hidden on page ten. It is what it is. All the criticism of the reporting does is incite guilt and negative feelings where there shouldn’t be any. I hope the reporters of the media do not take it to heart. If that’s what these profs believe, maybe they should consider new professions. If the Independent wants to take that stand, they need to remember..that people that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

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