At the Mic: Tom Leskiw
Tom Leskiw enjoys writing about birds and birding culture. He assures us that the topic at hand—how the mainstream media views birders—doesn’t keep him awake at night. Nevertheless, our relationship with media is a complicated one and ripe for tongue-in-cheek examination and reflection.
Following McKinleyville resident Keith Slauson’s discovery of a Little Bunting, our local Northwestern California press did its best to spread the news of this rare stray from Asia. However, the December 17, 2013 headline in the Eureka Times-Standard stopped me cold: “All atwitter; rare bird sighted in McKinleyville.”
First, I know a lot of birders. Although this is likely a reflection of my Luddite tendencies, few of them have a Twitter account. Second, use of the word “atwitter” is a term loaded with baggage, conjuring images of mindless twits, some of which just might be little old ladies in tennis shoes—an inaccurate and outdated birder stereotype. Third, twitter, as it relates to birds, and presumably birders, is defined as “a series of short, high-pitched calls or sounds.” Many birds—and most birders—don’t twitter. Unless of course, the latter is mocking a newspaper headline, which probably isn’t the desired feedback to your story.
The use of terms such as “for the birds” and “atwitter” suggests to me that the reporter doesn’t personally know any birders. So, I’ll break it down for you. Birding has gone mainstream, deemed the fastest growing outdoor pursuit for more than a decade.
We are cops, attorneys, engineers, anesthesiologists, doctors, teachers, professors, insurance and real estate agents, accountants, (legit!) farmers, carpenters, plumbers, heavy equipment operators, bikers, small business owners. Of course, natural scientists are well represented, too: fisheries and wildlife biologists, hydrologists, soil scientists, ecologists, botanists, natural history museum curators. Although I personally don’t know any birders who are black belts in karate or into mixed-martial arts, I’m sure they are out there. Which is something journalists might consider when they pull out stale, hackneyed, and deprecating phrases to describe our pastime. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but sometimes it seems as though birders are on the short list of those whose pursuits are still fair game to denigrate.
This isn’t the first time I’ve voiced my opinion on this issue. I wrote a letter to the editor of the North Coast Journal—which is published in Eureka, California—complaining about its use of the tired, go-to phrase “for the birds.” It’s likely coincidence, but since then, I’ve noted a significant decline in the use of that verbiage in local newspapers. For this, many members of my tribe and I are grateful. Of course, it’s possible that the reporter’s use of “atwitter” didn’t have an element of mean-spiritedness to it. If that’s true, my frustration lies in the fact that I know talented reporters and/or editors are capable of creating more evocative and accurate headlines.
Maybe one of the problems with finding the right headline for a rare bird story is that the event, by definition, is spontaneous. It’s not like a slowly unfolding political scandal, where reporters have time to consider the event’s context and identify suitable metaphors and double entendres. So, because it’s in the birding community’s best interest to have local media promote our pastime, I offer the following headlines that you are welcome to use:
Note: Lost birds far from their normal migration routes are termed “vagrants.”
Once-In-a-Lifetime Event Stuns Local Birders
Local Ecotourism to Benefit from Discovery of insert species
Awe and Wonder on Display in insert location of discovery
Discovery of insert species to Bolster Local Economy
(Feathered) Vagrant Rocks Birders’ World
Birders Gobsmacked by Discovery of insert species
Picking Through Flocks for insert time frame Finally Pays Off for Local Birder
First insert location Sighting of insert species Stuns Bird Aficionados
Discovery of Rare Vagrant Astonishes Local Birder
Needle-in-a-Haystack Discovery Amazes Birders
Lost Avian Waif (Nearly) Renders Local Birders Speechless