Tag Archives: tragedy porn

The politics of starving polar bears: my op-ed in the National Post last week

In case you missed it: The real story behind the famous starving polar-bear video reveals more manipulation (29 August 2018).

Chukchi Sea polar bear Arctic_early August 2018_A Khan NSIDC

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The truth behind the Baffin Bay starving polar bear video is worse than we thought

Remember that video of an emaciated Baffin Island Somerset Island polar bear that went viral last December?1 In an unexpected follow-up (“Starving-Polar-Bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong“; National Geographic, August 2018 issue), photographer Cristina Mittermeier makes some astonishing admissions that might just make you sick.

Baffin Island starving pb headline_GlobalNews_8 Dec 2017

It turns out they didn’t just come across the dying bear the day it was filmed: it was spotted at least two days earlier by Paul Nicklen. He must have had a satellite phone with him when he saw the bear but the only call he made was to his film crew — he made no attempt to find a local conservation officer to euthanize the bear, which would have been the right thing to do.

ADDED July 27 2018: Calling a conservation officer to euthanize the bear would have been the right thing to do not only out of compassion (and to know the cause of illness, because a necropsy would have been done), but because a starving bear is especially dangerous: it would have been a potential danger to any unsuspecting person who set foot on the island (he was strong enough to swim away, so was probably strong enough to kill a child, if not an adult).

The bear’s emaciated, near-death stagger2 was simply too tantalizing to pass up (video needs action: an emaciated dead bear would not been nearly as effective). Mittermeier claims they knew when they filmed the bear that he was sick or injured, but Nicklon presented it as an effect of climate change regardless. Mittermeier now says National Geographic simply “went too far” with their video caption (“This is what climate change looks like“), that she and Nicklan “lost control of the narrative.”

Actually, what they lost was their humanity.

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One starving bear is not evidence of climate change, despite gruesome photos

We finally have this year’s example of the new fad of claiming every polar bear that died of starvation (or on its way to starving to death) — and caught on film — is a victim of climate change: a young bear on Somerset Island near Baffin Island, Nunavut filmed in August during its last agonizing hours by members of an activist conservation organization called SeaLegacy.

‘I filmed with tears rolling down my cheeks’: Heart-breaking footage shows a starving polar bear on its deathbed struggling to walk on iceless land.” [actual title of article in the DailyMail Online, 8 December 2017]. CBC Radio (8 December 2017) jumped on it as well, as have others. National Geographic ran a similar story, like others, that compliantly emphasized the future man-made global warming threat the photographers were touting.

Baffin Island starving pb headline_GlobalNews_8 Dec 2017

This is no different from Ian Stirling’s “bear that died of climate change” back in 2013, or several others since then: here, here, and here (one of these incidents also involved the same photographer as this incident, Paul Nicklen). I’ve called this practice of filming dead or dying bears and splashing the photos across the pages of newspapers and the internet “tragedy porn” — a kind of voyeurism that leaves people open to emotional manipulation. The internet laps it up.

UPDATE 9 December 2017: a quote from another source shows photographer Paul Nicklen’s “expertise” in polar bear biology, see below.

UPDATE 11 December 2017: an Arctic seal specialist, Jeff Higdon, has weighed in via twitter about the possible cause of death of this bear and also what the SeaLegacy team should have done when they found the bear in this condition. See below

UPDATE 12 December 2017: See my update to this post here.

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Polar bear tragedy porn dressed up as science features in new BBC Earth video

This new effort by the BBC would make the PR department of the Center for Biological Diversity proud, with it’s prominent use of animal tragedy porn pretending to be science. In contrast, the actual science shows something quite different: though summer sea ice since 2007 has declined to levels not predicted until 2040-2070, there has been virtually no negative impact on polar bear health or survival, a result no one predicted back in 2005.

bbc-video-15-sept-2016-screencap-breaking-ice-02

Bizarrely entitled  A 3-million-year ice age is coming to an end (15 September 2016), this slick video pretends it’s promoting the recently released paper by Harry Stern and Kristen Laidre (2016) that got a lot of media attention last week (see here and here).

Who exactly suggested the profound prophesy stated in their chosen title, the BBC Earth folks don’t say: the Stern and Laidre paper certainly does not. And the use of a bear that appears to drown before our eyes is Hollywood-style emotional manipulation. Note the careful use of “might” (above) and “could” (below).

bbc-video-15-sept-2016-screencap-breaking-ice-01

Watch the videos below and weep not for the plight of the polar bear, but for the downfall of science journalism. Continue reading

Polar bear behaviour gets the animal tragedy porn treatment – two new papers

Recently, several polar bear biologists have teamed up with photographers to get pictures of starving bears into the scientific literature – and picked up by the media, with mixed results.

doi:10.3402/polar.v34.26612
For the second time in five years, polar bear biologist Ian Stirling has teamed up with a photographer to give unwarranted scientific credence to an anecdotal account of polar bear behaviour. It included a picture of a pitifully thin animal  (classic animal tragedy porn) and was framed to increase alarm over predicted effects of global warming. It got little media attention.

His Norwegian colleagues Jon Aars and Magnus Andersen have just done the same with a bear caught eating a white-beaked dolphin (photo above) – but this time the media took the bait.

Update 13 June 2015 – Information added on white-beaked dolphin distribution, sea ice conditions in 2014 and a correction. See below.
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Furor over a tweet from the Moscow polar bear forum

The ousting of WWF and their cohorts from meetings to which they had initially been invited is the real story (so far) coming out of the International Forum on Conservation of Polar Bears (December 3-6, Moscow). However, that incident never made the mainstream media, so few people will ever know it happened.

What the public did hear about was the uproar over a tweet.

On the last day of the meeting, Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq drove home, in less than 140 characters and a photo, the point she and her contingent had been trying to make at the meeting.

Aglukkaq tweet_Dec 5 2013
A twitter storm erupted that got really nasty — and the media picked up on it. Within hours, newspapers across Canada had themselves a story.

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Ian Stirling’s latest howler: “the polar bear who died of climate change”

Will wildlife biologist and Polar Bear Specialist Group member Ian Stirling now say anything – no matter how unscientific – to garner more sympathy and media attention for polar bears? It appears so.  [see followup post published Aug. 11, here]

A tabloid-style picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words article appeared in the environment section of the UK newspaper The Guardian yesterday (August 6, 2013) with a picture of a dead polar bear meant to wring your heart. The picture is a vehicle for statements from Ian Stirling and others that this polar bear died from climate change. A longer article was alongside.

The caption below the photo of a dead polar bear (animal tragedy porn) is this:

This 16-year-old male polar bear died of starvation resulting from the lack of ice on which to hunt seals, according to Dr Ian Stirling.”

Many folks have been asking questions about this and so have I.

I suggest this is what really happened: the polar bear biologists working in Svalbard earlier this year knew this bear was going to die back in April when they captured him – they simply waited, with a photographer on hand, until he died. It was an orchestrated photo-op.

[Update, Aug. 8, 2013: I suggest it was not necessary for anything more to happen to “orchestrate” this photo than for the researchers who captured the bear in April to tell colleagues and local tour boat operators (who always have avid photographers on board) to “keep an eye out for a dead bear, we don’t think this guy is going to make it.” However, very little real information is provided. Who knows when (or from whom) we’ll get the whole story — if ever? That’s why anecdotal accounts like these aren’t “evidence” of anything, in the scientific sense. That’s the real take-home message here.  If this dead bear was being presented as scientific evidence, we’d have been given all the details, including necropsy results, local ice conditions, precise dates, locations, and photos of any other bears that were seen that were in poor condition. In other words, a proper scientific report. ]

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