Sal Esposito: the mythical story of the cat and the jury summons

Even if you follow the news only lightly, the chances are you’ve seen a story in the last few days about how a cat received a jury summons in the US and, when the owners pointed out it was a cat, the local bureaucracy ordered the cat to turn up to court anyway.

So far, so normal as far as daft bureaucrats go?

Well, not quite. Because you don’t exactly have to be a fan of American judicial bureaucracy to stop and think, “Is it really true that the person organising the jury just ignored it when someone told them they had summoned a cat?”

Nor is it hard to think of possible explanations for the story. Perhaps it was a case of someone putting a cat down as a joke or a mistake on a form? That after all is the explanation for the occasional stories in the UK about baby / animal being sent a polling card – an adult filled in a form for their household wrong. Of course, ‘person gets form wrong and then rings media to say how stupid the council is for having acted on the wrong information they’d given’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as ‘stupid council gives votes to babies’.

Or perhaps there was good reason to suspect that someone was trying to dodge jury duty by pretending to be a cat – so summon them anyway?

And so on.

Or you can ignore all these possibilities and rush into print with the story.

Step forward – the Daily Telegraph, The Week magazine, the Daily Mail, the Metro and many other news outlets around the world.

The problem with that approach? Clue: involves egg and face.

Because the full story turns out to be that no, this isn’t a new story (it actually first did the rounds a year ago and has started off again for some reason), yes someone did put a cat down wrongly on a form and no, nobody demanded a cat turn up to court even after being told it was a cat.

As Boston.com explains:

“Sal Esposito,” the cat belonging to two East Boston residents, was mistakenly called for jury duty in December 2009 because his owners had listed him as a family member on a city census, said Jury Commissioner Pamela Wood. He was set to appear in March 2010. The error, she says, was quickly corrected…

Wood says it’s possible one outlet began the recent stampede when it found the year-old article and mistook January 2010 for January 2011.

Sal Esposito: the cat summoned for jury serviceAnd as for the details in several of the stories about why the appearance of the cat had been demanded? That has a rather prosaic answer too; having discovered their error when their cat was summoned, the owners looked for the most sensible option to tick on the summons to explain why the cat should not be summoned. Unsurprisingly, “I’m not a human, I’m a cat” wasn’t an option, so they ticked the ‘can’t speak English’ option. That in turn triggered a response to turn up anyway so the claim could be put to the test. Oh, and yes – it all got sorted without the cat having to turn up.

All rather boring, straight-forward and old:  last year someone filled out a form wrong; it got sorted.

I think there are two lessons from this. One is about the problem of churnalism – journalists recycling information found elsewhere with very little additional reporting or fact-checking of their own. When a dud story gets fed into the system, this is the sort of outcome to expect.

The other is that both journalists and consumers of news often treat this light-hearted stories rather like after-dinner speeches. You laugh at the funny stories in the good speeches, you expect them to have some relationship to the truth – but if really pushed to stop and think about it, you know that the chances are the story isn’t an accurate account of what really happened, having been embellished to add to the humour.

The big difference of course is that after-dinner speeches don’t come with the label “news”. Even recognising the pressures on journalists to get stories out, this wasn’t journalism’s finest hour. But hey, it got more photos of a cute kitten punted all round the internet and the internet always needs more of those.

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16 Comments

  • Does anyone remember the election when Young Liberals put up Greg the cat as a write in candidate? I think it might have been in Harrogate and that Guy Thornton was involved. He got a few votes as well. No doubt Lord Greaves could give us the chapter and verse.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Jan '11 - 10:01am

    During my time in politics and also in my professional life, I have never been impressed by any journalist I have encountered, ever, and I have encountered quite a few.

    What I find astonishing is that there are huge numbers of people wanting to do this job, very limited openings in it, yet those who actually make it into the job are just so ignorant of what they are covering. As I have frequently said, most seem to be innumerate, so articles are full of mathematical howlers of the sort any competent A-level Maths student should be able to see instantly. Similarly anything which requires a bit of scientific knowledge or logical reasoning. Of the thousands of graduates trying to squeeze themselves into the dozens of openings as journalists, is there not one ever who has decent competency in science and maths? This is despite the fact that a lot of stories do underneath have a science or statistics basis.

    And as for local government …. Well, it may not be glamorous, but isn’t it still a fairly standard way into the profession that you start working at the local rag, and then work upwards to the more prestigious roles in journalism? And isn’t it the case that the local rag, even now, has a lot of its stories based on what the council is doing? Wouldn’t you suppose then that people training to be journalists would get to learn things like the structure of local government, how it all works etc? And wouldn’t you suppose that those who actually manage to get their foot in the door with the job as cub reporter for the local rag, would have been picked for that role because of good knowledge of local government? And wouldn’t you suppose, given that this is the first step where they would need to do well to progress to the more glamorous roles in the national media, that they would very thoroughly get to learn how local government works? It’s not that difficult, it’s something all of us who got elected as councillors have had to do, and becoming a councillor is something you get arm-twisted into doing as so few people want to do it, whereas so many want to become journalists that actually getting that job is like winning the lottery.

    If you did suppose all this, you would very wrong. My experience as a councilor was that every time a bright new young reporter turned up, you had to start off instructing them on the very basics, because they were absolutely clueless on how local government works. It was odd to see how they found it a real revelation when you told them some mundane fact about structure which you only meant as a build-up to what you were trying to get to.

    The success of “Focus” indicates that people actually do like material which tells them what the council is doing. It doesn’t have to be knocking copy all the time, or major investigative reporting, just informed commentary on he issues from an independent background (assuming you’re writing “Focus” from the position of being in the opposition). Local journalists could do the same, but in my experience rarely do. Hence the reliance on the council press release, rather than getting the committee papers and reading through them, understanding them, and asking the questions yourself – as all of us who have been opposition councillors learn to do. Admittedly, I’m thinking primarily of the time before the abolition of the committee system. With the cabinet and “scrutiny” system, the real scrutiny that could be done under the committee system can’t be done, because the raw data that used to go through the committees and could be picked up from their papers is no longer there, or at least not nearly so easily accessible. It is an indication of the failure of journalism that this fundamental and in my opinion disastrous change to the way local government works was hardly commented on at all, either by local or national journalists because they did not understand it or even really know what was happening. Or maybe they just didn’t care. Maybe I’m a fool to suppose journalists do or should care about these things, and should accept that what pop stars had for breakfast is a far more important topic for the budding journalist to study.

  • >Unfortunately the hall mark of “lazy journalism”

    Or possibly newsrooms pared to the bone of staff, who are expected to churn out stories without the time to research them properly.

    Matthew H: you clearly haven’t a clue about how newspapers work.

    >I have never been impressed by any journalist I have encountered, ever, and I have encountered quite a few.

    Most journalists would say the same of councillors.
    I’ve met a few who are barely literate and struggle to string a coherent sentence together.

    >Of the thousands of graduates trying to squeeze themselves into the dozens of openings as journalists, is there not one ever who has decent competency in science and maths?

    Maths/science graduates don’t want to work for £15k a year, with very few openings to progress.

    >Wouldn’t you suppose then that people training to be journalists would get to learn things like the structure of local government,

    It’s part of the training course at the NCTJ colleges. If other courses don’t teach it, that’s the fault of the universities.

    >Hence the reliance on the council press release,

    Again: too few reporters in newsrooms these days. A press release is quick. A 90-page council document written largely in jargon ain’t.

    >Or maybe they just didn’t care. Maybe I’m a fool to suppose journalists do or should care about these things,

    No, you’re not a fool in that regard. Caring and being in any position to do anything about it…

    Changing to a cabinet system WAS bad for local democracy, btw. But what were local papers supposed to do about it?
    Shouldn’t it have been – I dunno – the COUNCILLORS who voted against it?

    >and should accept that what pop stars had for breakfast is a far more important topic for the budding journalist to study.

    National papers don’t cover local government. Local papers don’t do pop stars.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jan '11 - 10:54am

    Cassie

    Changing to a cabinet system WAS bad for local democracy, btw. But what were local papers supposed to do about it?
    Shouldn’t it have been – I dunno – the COUNCILLORS who voted against it?

    They could have bloody reported it, national as well as local press as it was being pushed on us nationally. Aren’t they supposed to be “news”papers, aren’t they supposed to report the news? Isn’t a major constitutional change, which amounts to the abolition of the voting rights of elected representatives “news”?

    I was a councillor at that time, and I voted against it, did what I could to get people to see what was happening, churned out the letters to the press and the press releases. But the journos couldn’t see it, because it was all too technical for them, it wasn’t pop stars breakfasts.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jan '11 - 10:59am

    Cassie

    >Of the thousands of graduates trying to squeeze themselves into the dozens of openings as journalists, is there not one ever who has decent competency in science and maths?

    Maths/science graduates don’t want to work for £15k a year, with very few openings to progress.

    I take it you have never seen the sort of pay rates that lab technicians get.

  • >I take it you have never seen the sort of pay rates that lab technicians get.

    Hardly the point.
    The point being that newsrooms are staffed by badly paid, over-worked and inexperienced youngsters, who tend to get out just as they are getting experienced. Into PR or anything that pays their rent.

    The point being that journalists tend to be arts graduates, who haven’t done any maths or science since GCSE.

    The fact that literacy standards among graduates have fallen over the years, btw, is an indictment of our education system in that time. Teachers not correcting spelling mistakes. Grammar taught only in the context of foreign languages.

    Cumberland Newspapers announced 29 redundancies last week. Pay in many centres has been frozen for three years, staff at others have had to take unpaid leave (to avoid more job cuts).
    About 9,000 editorial jobs have been axed in the UK (newspapers alone) since Dec 2008. Leaving, it’s estimated, around 40,000. Not hard to see how that’s affected quality.

    So bashing journalists en masse may be an easy and popular target, but it ain’t big or clever.
    And really, no one except you and the red-tops gives a bean about pop stars’ breakfasts.

    btw
    >They could have bloody reported it, national as well as local press

    Just because your local paper wasn’t interested doesn’t mean they all ignored it.
    And better late than never?:
    http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/welsh-politics/welsh-politics-news/2010/08/09/am-hopeful-hits-out-at-council-cabinet-system-91466-27022594/

  • I’ve been trying to find out what happened to the rest of the story, how it resolved. Your post is the closest I can find, but I can’t find your source when you say “Oh, and yes – it all got sorted without the cat having to turn up.”

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jan '11 - 11:12pm

    Cassie

    The point being that journalists tend to be arts graduates, who haven’t done any maths or science since GCSE.

    Yes, that was the point I was making. I would like to see far more journalists with science backgrounds. I think it would lead to better and more informed news.

    The fact that literacy standards among graduates have fallen over the years, btw, is an indictment of our education system in that time. Teachers not correcting spelling mistakes. Grammar taught only in the context of foreign languages.

    Yes, I have a lot of very strong views on things like that. I would like to see formal grammar taught in schools. I would like to see computer thrown out of schools. I say this from the basis of being a university lecturer in Computer Science. I am particularly fed up with clueless politicians who cannot see, though we academcs keep saying it, that we DON’T WANT these useless “vocational” qualification in “ICT” because they are just mindless box-ticking exercises which teach children how not to learn. I just looked at the curriculum for GCSE Computing from one of the big exam boards – it took an approach which was considered outdated 30 years ago when I did my degree! I might hate the Tories for most things, but in this Gove has it just right – teach them basic maths, language, formal reasoning, a little general world knowledge – THAT’S what we want the kids to have, not rote-learning buzz-words because that’s “relevant”.

    Sorry, lost the thread there, I feel very strongly about this, let’s get back …


    Cumberland Newspapers announced 29 redundancies last week. Pay in many centres has been frozen for three years, staff at others have had to take unpaid leave

    Sure, I’m sorry about this, but I think the decline in the decent local press is all part of the Murdochisation of the media – deskilling our population and truning them into morons by feeding them rubbish.


    So bashing journalists en masse may be an easy and popular target, but it ain’t big or clever.
    And really, no one except you and the red-tops gives a bean about pop stars’ breakfasts

    If no-one gives a bean about it, why are the newspapers which make this sort of thing their headlines the biggest sellers? And why are there all these glossy magazines that seem to be about nothing else? Someone must be buying them, and I do see plenty of people reading them.


    >They could have bloody reported it, national as well as local press

    Just because your local paper wasn’t interested doesn’t mean they all ignored it.
    And better late than never?:

    But it WASN’T just a local government issue. It was something forced on ALL councils by the Blair government. It got almost zero coverage in the national press, despite being a huge constitutional issue. It was national legislation that forced it. It was a hugely more important issue, fundamentally affecting our lives, than many that get substantial press coverage.

  • Great read – glad there are people like you watching the media and sorting the facts from the fiction. The only point I disagree on is that the true story was “boring”… I think the whole thing is still pretty amusing. I think that truth, scientific discovery, reality… are always more interesting than fiction.

  • Have literacy standards fallen over time though? I’m pretty sure my own spelling has improved massively since I was 16, when I stopped writing with a pen and paper and started using word processors, which underline every mistake until you make until you stop making the same fossilised errors over and over again. I would be surprised if there hadn’t been a similar improvement in the rest of the population now we all have our own electronic English teachers looking over our shoulders for the whole of our adult lives.

  • “Have literacy standards fallen over time though? I’m pretty sure my own spelling has improved massively since I was 16, when I stopped writing with a pen and paper and started using word processors, which underline every mistake until you make until you stop making the same fossilised errors over and over again. I would be surprised if there hadn’t been a similar improvement in the rest of the population now we all have our own electronic English teachers looking over our shoulders for the whole of our adult lives.”

    Does responding to a computer-generated indication of misspelling (or whatever) really constitute literacy, though?

    If I was taking part in a quiz and scored 100% because the computer prompted me with the right answer to every question, I wouldn’t preen myself on my brilliant general nolig.

  • No, but it counts if you don’t make the same mistake again one month later – just as if you had learnt it from an English teacher before the age of 16,

  • Matt (Bristol) 28th Nov '13 - 1:21pm

    There is a point not yet made in thread although probably made elsewhere – why does what Mark Pack labels ‘churnalism’ prosper in news reporting?
    Because information and debate about the current state of reality is not what new is there for, any more.
    It is – from the Sun to the FT to BBC to sites like this, even – an offshoot of the entertainment and leisure industry (at least in part). The story was put in the paper because it would make people laugh.

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