There's a Dog in This Story, So More People Will Pay Attention to It

A recent study found that current events featuring canines are more likely to get coverage.

Michael Kooren/Reuters

Jack Shepherd, the human whose job is to oversee BuzzFeed's content about animals, once said it was "indisputable" that "the Internet is one giant, virtual cat park."  After giving a nod to one of the prevailing theories as to why the Internet is the province not of dogs but of cats—many believe it's because cats' antics come from a place of pure self-interest, while dogs are always straining to impress—Shepherd theorized that it has less to do with the content than with the curator. He thinks that the people who write online about animals subscribe to the hype surrounding cats as Internet royalty and have only been obeying the accompanying viral momentum.

Personally, I have never seen the need to set up the eternal cat-dog question as a mutually exclusive binary—both are well-loved, and for good reason. But, at least online, it can be easy to forget just how much humans adore dogs. At a time when our canine obsession is not as visible as our love for cats, academia comes through with a reminder: A study published last month in PS: Political Science and Politics attempted to evaluate the boost in coverage a current event received when it involved a dog.

To quantify this boost, researchers from UCLA and the University of Miami compared stories in The New York Times's National section—which were used "as a sample baseline of events that could be reported on each day"—to other stories that ran in some of the nation's widely-read regional newspapers. Poring through Times coverage from 2000 to 2012, they sought stories "in which a dog was an important actor," and identified 18 such stories (a number that is small enough to suggest that this paper was at least partly tongue-in-cheek). After comparing those 18 stories' regional reach to that of the other Times stories that ran on those days, the researchers concluded that the presence of a dog can effectively propel a story from the back page of the National section to the front page.

One interpretation of this study's results is as further evidence that human attention sticks around only until the next shiny object comes along; put a dog in it, the study suggests, and eyeballs will follow. Another, which the authors note, is that journalists and editors favor stories with dogs because of a belief that they will strike a chord with audiences.

Those theories are surely not wrong, but it's probably also the case that the editors making decisions about what's newsworthy are on some level drawn to dog stories themselves. The biases held by today's content gatekeepers are a subject that doesn't escape the authors of this paper: They point out a handful of recent articles in PS: Political Science and Politics, including "Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Why Bo Didn't Fetch Many Votes for Barack Obama in 2012." A preference for canines might explain why a paper about dogs in news stories got the attention of a well-respected journal like PS, just as it likely explains why this very article exists.