KTVU bungles oil spill animal stories

KTVU continues its embarrassing misidentification of common Bay Area animals this morning.

OK, so to update this post for the record, the afternoon after this original post I saw a piece by Janine De la Vega on KTVU’s 5 p.m. news broadcast, and it was repeated (probably slightly modified, thought I didn’t see it) at 10 p.m. It was much better than the crab story, and much more in keeping with the station’s usually higher quality of reporting. De la Vega reported on the deaths of a number of seabirds and the near-starvation of others in the Monterey Bay area. She didn’t reach for any conclusions that weren’t supported by the facts she presented. The piece didn’t go as deep as I would have liked (there’s a much bigger story behind these starving birds with potentially huge environmental and economic importance), but it was nicely done as far as it went.

The impact on wildlife and the fishing industry following the Nov. 7 oil spill from the Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay is one of the most compelling elements of media coverage of the story. While the fact that the impact runs deep and is likely to go on for a long time is bad for the Bay Area in general, for the media it presents an opportunity for some great work that’s not only compelling and informative for news consumers but also stimulating for the journalists producing it. It ought to give the television news a change from “breaking stories” about snow in Blue Canyon, at any rate.

However, many media outlets can’t seem to properly identify the animals they’re covering. In the days immediately following the Cosco Busan spill, nearly every local television news station showed footage of harbor seals lounging on shoreline rocks (I saw the group that hangs out near Point Bonita in the Marin Headlands most often) while inaccurately calling them sea lions.

Harbor seals and sea lions don’t look much alike unless they’re swimming fast and you can’t get a good look at them, and because they occupy different ecological niches they are likely to experience different effects from the oil spill. Confusing a harbor seal with a sea lion is like not being able to tell the difference between a duck and a swan, or even between a compact car and a pickup truck. Similar in some ways, sure, but not that much.

Nevertheless, there’s little harm in this elementary identification error. Neither harbor seals or sea lions are economically significant to the region, and both represent more or less the same “awww” factor for average viewers.

But this morning KTVU — normally my favorite local TV news source — took bungled animal identification to a new and journalistically unacceptable low.

Kraig Debro was in Richmond reporting on the fact that some Richmond residents found a couple of crabs in a storm drain in their neighborhood. His story followed an earlier one about the fact that San Francisco seafood vendors have been offering crabs from Oregon and Washington at significantly higher prices than would be charged for local crabs. The anchor linked the Fisherman’s Wharf story with Debro’s by noting that some local crabbers had gone out recently but found buyers reluctant to purchase local crabs. Could there be some connection between crabbers with a boat full of unsellable crabs and the crabs in the Richmond storm drain? No one directly suggested that a commercial crabber had dumped his haul, but that’s certainly what they implied.

And then the shot of the crabs in the storm drain showed … rock crabs or red crabs. Not big, pale crabs with white-tipped claws, the Dungeness crabs everyone sees at market, for which the Fisherman’s Wharf sidewalk vendors are famous, and that represent an iconic and important part of San Francisco’s remaining commercial fishing economy. No, these were rock crabs or red crabs — smaller, darker and with black-tipped claws, not offered for retail sale anywhere in the Bay Area that I’ve ever seen, and certainly not the huge direct and indirect economic factor that Dungeness crabs are. And there were perhaps a dozen or fewer of them in the drain. D’oh!


Top photo: Dungeness crab on left, rock crab on right.


Bottom photo: Red crab.

I’m generally reluctant to call out lousy news coverage or finger a particular journalist, preferring to point out good work rather than bad. However, this error would have been so simple to avoid that I’m kind of perplexed that it ever made it on-air. I don’t care if it’s the day after Thanksgiving and you’re desperate for something to cover besides the crush of shoppers. Even if you can’t tell the difference between rock crabs and Dungeness crabs on first glance, that’s fine. KTVU’s mistake wasn’t one of marine biology but of elementary journalism and fact-checking. Somebody’s BS detector — either that of the reporter or the news director on duty — should have gone off: “Wait, there’s more than one kind of crab, right? Are these even the same kind people get at Fisherman’s Wharf or in the supermarket? Oh, they’re not? Huh, maybe there’s no story here at all, or at least not the one we thought we had.”

Instead, someone apparently had too much turkey at Thanksgiving dinner and fell asleep over the BS detector’s flashing red light, allowing a simple failure to check facts to embarrass an otherwise fine news organization with what seems to be a complete non-story.

I don’t know what those crabs were doing in the storm drain, but the implication that this story is directly related to both commercial crabbing and the Cosco Busan seems completely unwarranted. If I had to guess, I ‘d say a local recreational fisherman caught the crabs in the bay and took them home before having second thoughts about eating them, then just dumped them in the drain.


California Department of Fish and Game crab identification guide.

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