Libeled Lions?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   November 2001

Libeled Lions?   

Photographs of fake mountain lions angers at least one reader of Discover Magazine.

By Shannon Canton
     


Lynn Sadler studied Discover Magazine, trying to figure out what was wrong with the photographs of mountain lions in the June 2001 issue. The photographer seemed so close to the wild animals. How did he get those pictures? Then, she realized it was a stuffed lion, the same stuffed animal in each of the four photographs.

Sadler and fellow outraged mountain lion advocates claim the article "Is that a Mountain Lion in Your Backyard?" and the accompanying photographs put mountain lions in a false light. The article says mountain lions appear to be venturing from their homes in the wild and into more populous areas.

In one photograph, a mountain lion approaches a person on horseback. "They're trying to say that mountain lions are becoming much bolder, attacking in broad daylight, and that people on horseback should be careful," Sadler says.

Though interesting, says Sadler, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation in California, the article encourages fear and hatred of the animal she works to preserve. The science magazine failed to place the risks of attack in context, she says. But the photographs anger her the most.

Burkhard Bilger, a Discover Magazine senior editor, concedes the photographs really are of a stuffed lion. But they're representative of the work photographer Richard Ross does, Bilger says, which includes "dioramic-style photographs of stuffed animals deliberately meant to look artificial." It was meant to be more interesting than regular stock photographs.

Sadler is "accusing us of faking photos as if we're deceiving readers," Bilger says. "But it's not true. They're simply pictures of a mountain lion in a landscape."

The article was thoroughly fact-checked, he adds, but if anyone points out mistakes, he'll run a correction.

Sadler thinks Discover should have published a disclaimer with the June article telling readers that the photographs were staged. Since the magazine didn't do that, she wants an article of equal prominence to set the record straight.

That's unlikely, Bilger says. "I don't think it's an inaccurate article, so there's no record to set straight."

Edited by Lori Robertson

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