Why Do You ‘Only Write The Bad News’? And Other Musings

I spent the first couple of days of this week attending the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) conference. As always, it was an incredibly educational experience, with great presentations from racing commission officials and veterinarians, as well as staff from the new Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) about the transition to come.

It has become standard in these types of meetings in the last few years to sprinkle in references to the challenge of racing’s public perception, which is hung broadly on “the media.” Sometimes I imagine these little sidenotes, which as you may guess are often very critical, are aimed at trade media like the Paulick Report, and other times the speaker is probably thinking of mainstream media, who have a very different knowledge base when it comes to horse racing and very different directives. That happened here too, mostly in the context of the need to steer the conversation around racing fatalities or drug scandals.

One speaker – Dr. Scott Palmer of the New York State Gaming Commission – pointed out that many people don’t find the rate of racing fatalities, which are usually expressed as a figure per 1,000 starts, all that compelling outside the industry. Every time a horse dies, it’s a liability for the sport even if the rate is slowing down, which Palmer seems to think a little unfair.

“When you talk about controlling the narrative, we’re having people beat us over the head for a single horse death,” said an indignant Palmer. “It’s a body count, folks.”

I don’t resent Palmer’s suggestion that racing needs to place at front and center the significant progress the sport has made in improving equine safety, but that’s the priority of a public relations agency and not a news outlet. (And I’d strongly suggest racing entities do more to develop relationships with public relations professionals.) I do resent the implication that reporters like myself are willfully ignoring good news in favor of the bad or taking some kind of perverse pleasure in each new death, regulatory failure, or other horror. Honestly, the barrage of them in recent years make me tired and increasingly worried about the future of the business on which my livelihood is based.

His visible frustration dovetails nicely with the same questions our staff get to our inboxes, social media timelines and, in less comfortable moments, in face-to-face conversations with someone I’ve just met: Why don’t you guys ever publish any positive news?

I’ve been responding to this on an individual basis for years, but the time has come to create an evergreen reference post for this.

First of all, I have a lot of trouble with the suggestion that news is “positive” or “negative.” In my experience, this is a description of how a story makes a reader feel, and that’s a highly individual, emotional response which can vary widely between people. Facts are facts; as long as I’ve done my job as a reporter and those facts are accurate, I believe facts to be neutral. Your feelings about them are neither universal nor something I can control.

Laying aside the problem with this positive/negative classification for a moment, we at the Paulick Report actually do make an effort to publish stories most people would consider “positive.” A staggering number of them, in fact. We even had a series called Good News Friday which we ran for many years, followed by OTTB Showcase, which examined a different aftercare story each week and still run a monthly column from Jonathan Horowitz on his journey with his OTTBs. We did a series of profiles on barnyard companion animals, and continue to run monthly profiles of the grooms, exercise riders, and assistant managers who make our sport possible. We do lots of other occasional series looking back at horse racing’s rich history. (See some of those here and here.)

(The series that have not continued ran out largely because the companies that sponsored them shifted their advertising money elsewhere. So if you want to see Barn Buddies make a comeback, please feel to reach out to our advertising director because I really miss writing it.)

And you know what? We get far, far less traffic on those feel-good stories when compared to reporting on drugs cases, the federal indictments, contentious disqualifications, etc. Readers say they want more of this content, but when it’s presented to them it seems they don’t really want what they say they want. As a web-based publication, we’ve always been keenly aware of our analytics, and this trend has been true for our entire existence. It’s not going to stop us from doing “positive” content, because we believe in balance and while these pieces take up resources while providing comparatively less return than other types of content, we think these warm and fuzzy stories are just as important as the tough ones.

But remember, dear reader – you control your Facebook and Twitter feeds, as well as your inbox. Thanks to social media algorithms, you will see more and more of the type of news you consume. If you want to see more of these “positive” stories, vote for them with your traffic. Make their click count more appealing to publications and advertisers, and make the dreaded social platforms serve them to more of your friends.

After finishing up at the ARCI conference, I went back to my home office and contended with reporting on the arrest of a stakes-winning Quarter Horse trainer who was captured in two videos beating one of his horses while it was tied to a tree … which, in case you wondered, doesn’t exactly put me in a positive mood with regard to people generally, let alone the industry which nurtured this guy for many years.

The thing about stories like this which upset people and which are upsetting to report is that my not having reported it would not have erased its having happened. We could have ignored this incident, or others that have sparked outrage within or at the racing world. But that horse would still have been victim of abuse whether or not I wrote a story about it, and a successful, licensed trainer would still be facing a court date on a felony charge and a summary suspension. And, lots of people would still have seen and been horrified by the video, which made the rounds on social media for several days before I knew about it.

I think that in reality, most readers come to us because we’ve built a reputation for being unafraid to look critically at complicated or difficult topics. We do so with the hope that shining light on the dark corners of equine sport will urge people in all positions – including regulators like Palmer and others at the ARCI conference – to continue pushing for improvements to make the sport safer, cleaner, and more ethical for its participants and fans. By examining what went wrong in a given situation, we have a much better and more specific idea of what can be done to prevent recurrence. This, we believe, is the best and most effective way we can help the sport we love, and serve our readership.

The post Why Do You ‘Only Write The Bad News’? And Other Musings appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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