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Animal-molester fears apparently exaggerated

Fewer animals were attacked than at first appeared. Keystone/Alessandro Della Bella/swissinfo

Emotional media coverage of the macabre and baffling case of an animal killer stalking the Swiss countryside has fuelled public fears, an analyst tells swissinfo.

This content was published on September 29, 2005 - 08:51

Heinz Bonfadelli of Zurich University's department of mass communication and media research said much of the speculation was wildly off the mark.

The results of tests on dead farm animals now show that many suspected victims of torture actually died of natural causes, confounding much of the speculation surrounding the whole affair.

But in 35 cases in Canton Basel Country, there appears little doubt that the animals were sexually abused and killed. Police are no closer to catching the suspect or suspects.

Fears that the torture is becoming more widespread appear to have been quashed by tests in Zurich, Neuchâtel and Basel that reveal that 28 animals actually died naturally.

swissinfo: Why has this case caused so much uproar in Switzerland?

Heinz Bonfadelli: It has all the ingredients of a good story. It involves defenceless animals, farmers who are already under a lot of pressure, has sexual connotations and there is an element of mystery to it.

All these ingredients add up to a story that produces an emotional response from people.

swissinfo: What do you make of the media coverage?

H.B.: The media coverage has been highly emotional and speculative. There is a growing tendency in the media to personalise stories and this has been no exception. It has been based on facts, but with a lot of speculation thrown in.

swissinfo: Why is this?

H.B.: Competition in the media has become stronger and reader figures have been declining. The effect of this competition means that every day there must be a scandal or an emotional story to attract consumers.

There is a need to get the story out fast so that you don't miss out and get left behind.

The trouble is that the media went too fast on this occasion and did not double-check all the facts with experts.

swissinfo: What effect has this had on the public's reaction to this case?

H.B.: This story was spread like an epidemic by the media and people get sensitised by such emotional coverage.

It is not unusual for farm animals to die and these deaths normally go unnoticed. But it seemed that many cases of animals dying were being interpreted as the work of the torturer, on the basis of the media coverage.

This had a profound effect on people, especially in the farming communities.

swissinfo: Is the media solely to blame for the story getting out of proportion?

H.B.: Obviously the media reacted on the basis of reported cases. Farmers were presenting new evidence every day and it is difficult for journalists because they are not animal experts.

They see the farmers as the experts and trust them. This is not a media scandal. There was no false reporting that I know of, just too much speculation.

swissinfo-interview: Matthew Allen

Key facts

The first attacks on farm animals were reported in June this year.
Canton Basel Country police say there are 35 confirmed cases of these attacks.
However, 28 other suspected cases have been dismissed as death by disease, health problems or attacks by other animals.

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