We have all been there. You open up your local paper or a weblink to an article and read about a mountain biking trail you have some knowledge about. Somewhere around paragraph three your jaw drops at how much the reporter got wrong. How did this happen? How can a simple (seeming) story about mountain bike trails go so off the rails and come out looking like it’s a story in Pravda about capitalist pigs?
So how does this happen?
The foundation of the problems in reporting
In the United States most mainline papers and TV stations adhere to a type of reporting that can best be described as differential reporting, that is, to report the differences between two viewpoints. In other words, this side believes this about a subject and this other side believes this about that same subject. Two sides with roughly equal pros and cons to their respective augments. Now there might be data that is included that might color the viewpoint of one side or other. However, this type of data is almost always left out of the actual story and shunted over to the editorial section or, if the media team feels like the story needs to advocate for a position, the investigative unit.
On paper, this sounds great for mountain biking, right? A fair assessment of what mountain biking is and is not and what it could bring to a community. Well, it could be, if there is a factual discussion with some in-depth reporting of the context surrounding statements or claims. As we have mentioned many times before, mountain biking and mountain bikers have the facts on their side. We don’t have to fudge to make our case.
The problem for mountain biking is that often times that factual discussion is missing and there is not the required context to adequately inform those that know nothing about mountain biking.
The first reality that hampers good reporting on mountain bike trail proposals is that trail building and usage, especially in an urban setting, is complicated. There is no “one little trick” to urban mountain biking and certainly not to adequately place mountain biking and other uses and users into a public space without issues. It’s a lot of moving parts with a lot of choices and tradeoffs. When it comes to subjects like environmental impact, sharing trails and management of the framework around urban mountain biking, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of decisions and choices that must be balanced and worked through. It’s hard to make this reality pithy and quotable. It’s harder to explain how one choice here can affect an outcome over there.
The second problem is that the reporting about mountain biking often falls into the “reptilian trap”.
What is the reptilian trap?
Call it the “fake news problem”, the “Alex Jones problem”, the “evidence vs. opinion problem” or whatever term you want to use. The “reptilian trap” is just more fun.
The “reptilian trap” is a play on words based on the belief espoused by David Icke that the entire globe is at the mercy of blood-drinking, shape-shifting, pedophilic reptiles from outer space. The reptilian trap is describing when one party or group can make claims with no basis in fact (and often counter to the facts) without any challenge by those reporting on that party or group.
Imagine this scenario: David Icke is in your town giving a discourse on how Queen Elizabeth goes home at night and takes off her human flesh and horks down some O-negative from homeless people. The local news media interview him. He says that he absolutely believes in reptilian overlords. The local news then interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson who is also visiting your town. He says, of course this is all nuts. That local news’ story then has back-to-back quotes – David Icke: “Reptilians rule us all!”; Neil deGrasse Tyson: “Uh… scientifically unlikely”.
In that moment, the local news just fell into the reptilian trap. There are vast differences in knowledge, evidence and information (and arguably, sanity) between David Icke and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yet, the desire to have two sides to a news story stripped those differences out of the discussion. To the reader, it seems like these are two equal, but dissimilar ideas and concepts.
This is where the reptilian trap can bite mountain biking: stories where there is some type of opposition to mountain biking trails. Person one, with the “anti” viewpoint, says that ‘mountain bikes erode trails more than hikers’. Person two, a trail builder or advocate for the trails, says that ‘on properly built and maintained trails, the erosion is about the same’. The news media quotes these two viewpoints as if they are equal, they are not. For nearly 25 years scholarly work has been done across the world on the impacts of mountain biking use on trails. Here in the United States, three agencies (BLM, USFS, Parks) of the federal government have done multiple studies on that question. Multiple state’s Departments of Natural Resources and Parks Departments have done the same. Universities have also been part of this web of knowledge.
Many reporters will claim that they must report this way as 1) they have word limit or a time count to hit for the piece or 2) any attempt to explain facts is choosing sides and reporters aren’t supposed to choose sides. The first reason isn’t valid as mentioning whether a statement is backed by facts only takes a few words or moments of air time. The second reason even makes less sense as part of what reporting is supposed to be about is accurate information. Allowing two differing viewpoints to stand with no facts or context isn’t providing accurate information. One can’t believe in the truth (or at least claim to) and not explain what has factual evidence.
In the end, the desire to make every story this sort of Newtonian opposite but equal storyline robs every one of the ability to learn. It also allows the most crazed and fringe voices to find acceptance in everyday society and therefore erodes further what the truth is. How? It’s simple: if there is no challenge of a statements based on facts, those opinions can appeal to a certain number of people. Once they become the beliefs of a certain percentage of people, the threshold of what something has to become to be considered “fringe” gets even more absurd.
That isn’t some opinion of City MTB, this has been recognized by others, as an article in Scientific American makes clear:
By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another.
That is really the rub here: any mountain biking proposal is a mix of desires, policy, science and history. When reporters either won’t explain the facts or even care to learn them, they do a disservice to their audience AND to the policies, science and history.
But the reptilian trap gets a hand up from another growing problem of the media: failure to do real research.
Google research is not real research
Another issue befalling reporting on mountain biking is the propensity of some writers to do research on a subject based on Google searches. This most often occurs in opinion columns or editorials, but occasionally it creeps into “normal” articles. Anytime an article includes statements like “other communities have wrestled with this issue” you can detect the strong odor of Google research (and usually the strong odor of BS too).
Here is why Google research is so dangerous: because Google is designed to find exactly what you are looking for. If you type in “Florida man kittens sad” the list of news articles you get are a pile of very sad stories involving unspeakable things done to kittens by male Floridians. Type in “Florida man kittens happy” and you get a list of heartwarming stories about male Floridians and kittens. So, what happens if you are thinking of hiring Bob from Florida to work in your pet store? Depending on what you type in, you might think Bob will cuddle every kitten he sees or throw it into a woodchipper.
The same thing will happen when a writer does Google research regarding mountain biking. Imagine for a moment that a writer for a local paper is wanting to talk about the desire to place mountain bike trails in a local park. If the writer types in “hiker biker conflict”, what stories will he or she get back? Well, clearly, it will be exactly what they asked for: articles about some form of conflict. The areas without any conflict (which is almost all of them) get sorted out for the few stories that have conflict in them.
As we’ve said before, this whole urban mountain biking thing requires some effort to pull off successfully. Taking the possibility of conflict between hikers and bikers on the same trail as a subject matter, this site has had a 5 part series on how hikers and bikers can share trails and a 7 part series on the management techniques that makes that sharing possible. If that is the case, do you think typing in “hiker biker conflict” into the Googles will give you a wide-ranging view? What happens when the noted articles and stories themselves might be riddled with reptilian traps or where built around Google research themselves?
It becomes this vicious circle where the Google research begets more Google research. One article is printed with some amount of Google research and as soon as that article is out on the internet, it’s being Google researched by some other lazy writer. Soon the actual context of reality is missing, and layers and layers of rumors end up piled on top of the pea of the truth, hidden at the bottom.
Let’s look at some examples
Let’s take a look at two articles about a proposed set of trails at Lone Lake Park in Minnetonka, MN. We’ve talked about Lone Lake Park before. We are not trying to beat a dead horse here, but wrong or right Lone Lake Park is a gift that keeps giving as far as an example to learn from.
The first article by Miguel Otárola is about the anti-mountain biking group in Minnetonka suing the City regarding an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) petition they themselves brought. This article is a straight forward discussion of what is taking place. And, as you might have guessed, there are enough reptilian traps in it that it could be confused with the finding of the Ark scene from Indiana Jones.
Here is a good example:
The fact that they wouldn’t even take into account potential environmental concerns … is very troubling,” said Marshall Tanick, the attorney representing the nonprofit, adding that “the city is seeming to turn a blind eye” to those concerns.
The attorney representing these individuals is making a basic statement: the city voted down an EAW review without any care about environmental concerns. Simple enough viewpoint (though factually incorrect).
A few paragraphs later, the Mayor is quoted as saying:
We could do the EAW and be in exactly the same spot … six to nine months from now,” Mayor Brad Wiersum said at the time. “We’re here to take the heat and make the decision, and live with the consequence of people liking us or not liking us.
Here is the reptilian trap: the reason why the Mayor and the vast majority of the council voted this way is made to seem like it was just about who thought what, i.e. the city thinks this, these people think that. Not that an EAW would not contain any more information than the existing Environmental Assessment (EA) done by SEH. Not that, though asked, every speaker suggesting an EAW should be done refused to say whether they would have abided by the findings of an EAW. Not that other methods, with more detailed analysis than would be done thru the EAW process, could be done independent of an EAW. Not that any member of the public can look up existing EAWs for trail proposals and see that many of the items those petitioning for an EAW simply are not expanded upon in an actual EAW. None of this contextual information that changes the level of mastery of the facts of the two viewpoints was included.
Including those facts would not have changed the length of the article much, but it would have actually explained in greater detail why the city voted against doing an EAW. Remember, journalism is supposed to be about the search for the truth. How can a writer claim they are getting at the truth when they sweep most of it out of the article?
A few weeks later, a regular bike related opinion column writer, Tony Brown, jumped in to the fray. The resulting article will likely set your teeth on edge. More importantly it’s a great example of how research via Google can muddy the waters.
Let’s start with this gem:
In California, Oregon, Colorado and British Columbia, prosecutors have been arresting hikers who allegedly laid hidden traps and obstacles on forest paths newly opened to people on mountain bikes.
Yeah, that is great that jackwagons exist in other places, but has there been such an incident in Minnesota or in Minnetonka? Unless the author knows that this will occur in Minnetonka because those opposed to the trails are likely to commit violence, what is this doing here? The only possible reason to include is to ramp up the “us vs. them” aspect of the rest of the article.
But this is where the Google research really comes out in full force:
Picture it: Lone Lake Park is one fifth the size of Theodore Wirth Park, or maybe four times the footprint of U.S. Bank Stadium. Can the city of Minnetonka wedge 5 miles of mountain bike trails within that space and still claim (as it does in its official Lone Lake concept plan) that the trails will “minimally disturb other park users, (and) coexist with the natural environment”?
None of these sizes of the items included are wrong. But how those numbers matter to Lone Lake Park are all wrong. Why? Because to know what these numbers mean, you have to know how they are used, something Google research doesn’t tell you. Is Lone Lake Park 1/5th the size of Theodore Wirth Park? Yep. But Theodore Wirth’s trails are in a boxed user management technique and if you get the sizes of those boxes around the trails, all 6+ miles of trails in Theodore Wirth is just over 168 acres, or slightly larger than Lone Lake Park. Could you fit four US Bank Stadiums in Lone Lake Park? Yep. But do you know what fits into a two US Bank Stadiums sized property? All 6.6 miles of trails in the 70 acres that is Hillside City Park in Elk River, MN. Its great we know the size of things, but what do those sizes mean and how do those sizes match other locations? Just these 3 examples (Theodore Wirth, Hillside & Lone Lake) have widely different amounts of land to the amount of trails. So there is something more important than the area of the parks going on here. Sorry to say, something other than Google research would be needed to determine what these numbers mean. To get that information, it would require learning about and understanding trail building and the impacts thereof, something can’t be done in 5 minutes of Google research.
That is the thing about doing Google research: you can end up with something that you think sounds amazing but isn’t. In this case, Mr. Brown asks a question that could be answered this way: yeah, the city can be pretty confident in the effects of the proposed 4.7 miles of trail in Lone Lake Park because they have places of similar size to look at with long histories. Included in that “looking at the other trails” answer is a heck of lot of non-Google research, that is true. There are 13 other metro or suburban trails to make comparisons to. That isn’t counting the nearly 30 other urban or suburban trails within the state of Minnesota. But if you are writing a column whose primary focus is that these trails would be disruptive in some way (to point that you believe some of the anti-mountain bikers might shiv someone), shouldn’t you actually go see if the trails that proceeded this proposed trail were as disruptive as you are suggesting?
Ways to help your mountain biking proposal
All this leads us to a simple question: How can you reduce the likelihood your mountain biking proposal will fall into a reptilian trap or be on the receiving end of Google research? There are some simple methods to at least reduce the likelihood of that. It won’t stop reporters or media personalities that want to slam your proposal, but they help for most well-intentioned individuals.
Be proactive and be aggressive – It’s important to think about the articles and stories that could be generated and how to address possible questions a reporter might ask about the proposal. Additionally, you should think about what arguments against a proposal someone might make. Have answers and citations that are short and easy to remember ready to go. Some make flash cards, with common questions on one side and answers on the other. Whatever you need to have the knowledge at hand is acceptable. In this context, being aggressive is not referring to the attitude of being a pushy jerk. It means you should seek to approach journalists and others in the media world to build a connection and a knowledge base with them. This might include journalist Q & A meetings or taking them on tours of similar trails as your proposal. And remember, do it with a smile and good sense of humor.
Create FAQs and media fact sheets – If you have thought about potential questions or objections people will have about your proposal, use them to create a document with frequently asked questions (FAQ) and the answers to those questions. Also, create media fact sheets. A media fact sheet is a sort of bullet list with headings. An example heading might be about erosion of trails used for mountain biking and below that would be a bullet list of facts about the erosion differences (or more accurately, lack thereof) between hiking and biking on sustainable trails. It’s been noted that on anything controversial and especially when talking about aspects of ecological impact, that the bullet points should have footnote references to scientific articles and studies containing that information. This means you will have to break up the fact sheets to keep them to the front/back of sheet of paper only, but that is a feature, not a bug. Having a sheet on erosion and a separate sheet on trail sharing, for instance, allows you to precisely tailor the information dump to the subject at hand.
Preemptive strikes can win the day – If you know there will be questions or concerns about some aspects of your proposal, address that up front. It’s the “5 Ds” approach: determine, decide, deputize, deflect and disrupt. Determine what your perceived negatives are. Decide how to address or explain them. Deputize your opponent’s arguments as your own. Deflect any attempts to question. This allows you to disrupt their ability to create coherent arguments. When talking to the media, it’s important to know that not all the Ds are needed. But the first 3 are very important. For instance, if you know you might get questions about having hikers and bikers on narrow trails, don’t wait for the reporter to ask about it. When appropriate, preempt the question by discussing how you care about safety and will be using proven techniques with over 20 years of usage to ensure all users, hikers and bikers, of a trail will be able to use them safely. By doing this, you frame the narrative the way you want it and take the wind out of the sails of any questions that could be asked.
Don’t fudge the facts – The fact is, not everything about mountain biking has an answer. There things that are unknown, unknowable or unstudied. There are things that are very specific to circumstances. If you don’t know the answer or need more time to research, there is nothing wrong with saying so. There are also truisms of mountain biking that can become false if misused. It’s true, for instance, that cross country style trails are considered passive use. However, that same umbrella of passive use does not extend to freeride mountain biking. If the proposal you are championing includes freeride structures and trails in a passive use property, the fact is you can’t “extend” the passive use argument to cover your proposal. Keeping a discussion completely factual means you might have to concede there are gaps in our knowledge. That isn’t a failure, its humility.
In the end, there will be only so much you can do to help journalists write about your mountain biking trail proposal. The journalists will be up against deadlines, pressure from editors to “sex up” the story with more conflict and a journalism schooling that equates defining a factual basis as taking sides. But with a plan and a willingness to be proactive you can mitigate some of the negative possibilities in a story.
Building a respective and positive relationship with the media is in your interest. It will help you now and in the long run.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.