By now we're guessing most of Missoula has heard the heart-wrenching tale of Mercy, the 4-month-old kitten police found badly beaten on Jan. 31. News of the incident spread fast, leading local television broadcasts and making it above the fold on the front page of the Missoulian. Coverage continued to dominate Missoula's mainstream media throughout the week, only to end abruptly two days after the kitten's alleged abuser, Gary Bassett, committed suicide.
Sorry, fellow media slaves. It's time for a little navel gazing. In light of what happened, we felt compelled to ask some impartial experts whether a kitten deserved such heightened attention.
"Playing it above the fold was overplaying it," says University of Montana journalism professor Clem Work. "Yes, I know news is local. But in the scope of what's going on in the world—the Haiti earthquake and other acts of violence—it just seemed to be overplaying it."
We get it. Finding compelling and timely local news is a tough gig. And this one seemed to have everything: Kittens, domestic violence, kittens, animal adoption, kittens, felony charges. Did we mention kittens?
But Work believes the high-profile coverage of Mercy's beating unwittingly generated a "mob mentality" of condemnation. Just look at the nearly 100 online comments at missoulian.com generated by a Feb. 3 follow-up on Mercy's euthanization. Ironic, says UM journalism professor Nadia White, that the story of a Flathead man accused of murdering his father and brother and assaulting his estranged wife Jan. 30 slipped by the community without a peep.
"What is going on that this story of an abused cat receives so much more play than the story of murdered humans?" White asks.
What some find more troubling is the glaring lack of balance in the varied reports of the beating. Stories immediately identified Bassett as the suspect—leading to his home address being posted on Craigslist—while information concerning his potential mental health issues came to light only after his suicide.
"I'm loathe to kill the messenger," says White. "I think being a reporter is very hard today, but I see a disregard for balance and an intention to sensationalize."
Last week, Missoula witnessed a chain of events that culminated not only in the death of a kitten but also the death of a 63-year-old man. Yet we remain as uninformed about Bassett as we were when a battered Mercy first stared up from newsstands.
"We owe it to our neighbors to try to understand their stress," White says, "before it gets to the point they're killing cats—or brothers and fathers."