Last week, I wrote a story titled “Dog’s death prompts calls for safer rail crossing in Delta Nature Reserve.”
The story was about a woman named Alexandra Gust who witnessed a dog being hit by a train at a frequently used — if unsanctioned — rail crossing about halfway between Nordel Way and 72nd Avenue. After Gust shared her experience on Facebook, a number of people commented that the city should do something to make the crossing safer.
Suggested changes ranged from more and/or clearer signage warning of the danger trains pose, to posting the train schedules at the crossing, to building an overhead crossing to replace the current ground-level one.
Based on the sympathy for the man whose dog was killed and the number of stories of slain pets and close calls (both for animals and people) in the comments below Gust’s post, I assumed that a story would resonate with readers and perhaps foster dialogue about rail safety along the BNSF tracks in North Delta.
Turns out I was half right.
It was our most-read online story for days, and garnered more engagement on social media than most things we post.
But that engagement was ugly, and not at all about the crux of the story.
The majority of comments on Facebook were aimed squarely at the man whose dog had been killed, blaming him for his dog’s death and screaming to high heaven for people to leash their dogs at all times in the nature reserve.
People accused him of blaming others — even the train company — for the loss of his dog. They suggested that he was too dumb to leash his dog while crossing the tracks, or too lazy to look both ways before crossing, and that he was going to ruin it for all the people who use the crossing “responsibly” when the city shuts it down.
Many asked what he was doing walking along the tracks in the first place. And a few even went so far as to say he deserved it, one calling it Darwinism in action.
A scant few expressed a measure of sympathy at the man losing his dog and the trauma of witnessing such a grisly scene, but most of those were couched in a “… but …” admonishing him for his mistakes.
What angers me about all this is that a) it shows how few people commenting actually read the article, and b) how quick — nay, desperate — people are to throw blame around and prop up their own fragile egos by tearing down someone they have never met.
It’s neither new nor uncommon for people to comment having only read the headline. Every reporter everywhere has a bald spot or two from pulling their hair out every time they see someone on social media ask other commenters a question that, nine times out of 10, is answered in the first three paragraphs of the story.
(FYI, we write stories that way on purpose, so you can get the most important info up front.)
But in this case, every comment was based on this false narrative of the man complaining that the city/railroad/society-at-large was responsible for his dog’s death. Had a single one of these “readers” bothered to click the link they were commenting on, they would have known better.
Where to start? How about the fact that the man isn’t quoted or paraphrased at all in the article. I never spoke to him, never met him. Gust had never met him before that day and never got his name. We have no way of knowing who, if anyone, he blames for the accident that claimed his dog’s life.
Or maybe the fact that no one in the story expressed any blame at all. Gust acknowledged both the park and the greenway are on-leash areas, and yes, had his dog been leashed it would not have been hit. But the reason for her post was to educate others so as to hopefully prevent it from happening again, not to publicly lambaste the man for his carelessness.
Also, he and Gust were crossing from one side to the other, as dozens of park users do every single day, not walking along the tracks. And as I mentioned already, others have had close calls with the trains that run along that stretch of track. It could happen to anyone, and next time it might not be a dog that gets hit.
And that was the point of the article, that it could — and if we’re being frank, almost certainly will — happen again, and that some people, quite rightly in my opinion, think doing something to help keep people safe is important.
I’m not saying all of the solutions posed made sense, but at least these civic-minded people were trying to help make their community better.
To the rest of you, what have you accomplished with your interminable blame game?
I suggest you take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why you felt you had — HAD — to talk eight kinds of trash about this man on the internet. What is it inside of you that makes you lash out like that?
Go ahead, I’ll wait…
James Smith is the editor of the North Delta Reporter.