Has the mainstream media been responsible in the way it’s reported the lion-killing story?

REUTERS/Eric Miller
It's often said, “The first rule of show biz is, ‘Give the people what they want.’ ”

Anyone who has worked in a mainstream newsroom more than a week could see the potential in the tale of Dr. Walter Palmer and his killing of Cecil the lion. Jumping on the story would have been an easy call even 20 years ago. Animal stories have a unique emotional power over the public. “Animal stories always sell,” is the adage.

But in the new era/reality of social media, when the public’s appeal for a certain story is instantly obvious via Twitter, Facebook and the like, feeding that appetite is a complete no-brainer if you’re in the business of selling news.

It’s often said, “The first rule of show biz is, ‘Give the people what they want.’ ” And in this case what the public wanted was, to put it bluntly: the trophy-­hunting dentist’s head on a pike. Not that any respectable newsroom was going to advocate for such a thing directly. They didn’t have to.

All that was required was to give the irresistible story maximum coverage, an easy effort in the dog days of summer, when the only other news with “talker” status is the latest buffoonish comment by one political candidate or another.

Putting aside whatever personal views you may have about Dr. Palmer and big game hunting in the 21st century, the episode warrants a discussion of how mainstream/legacy/professional news organizations treat stories with the built in emotional fuel­-on-­fire potential of this one.

For example, what is to be avoided or included in coverage, knowing full well that the story was primed to press all the outrage buttons on a large segment of the audience? After all, the story arrived complete with pictures of the majestic lion and the hunter, shirtless in one shot (a la Vladimir Putin), hefting a leopard he had killed on a previous trip. Any “balance” in the story was completely out of whack even if presented “objectively.”

U of M associate prof Chris Ison, a former Star Tribune investigative reporter, says, “I don’t know that anyone I’ve seen or read has done a terrible job on this story. But I will say that in a story like this, which you know is going to incite a high level of passion among the public, you have to be very clear about what you don’t know.”

This would include, he says, facets like whether Palmer knew what he was doing was illegal (which he says he didn’t and was reported widely) and what exactly is the status of lion population in Africa (which wasn’t). The latter being the type of information as immediately accessible today as the exploding furor over the incident on social media.

Likewise, a few strokes of the keyboard can produce background information like Palmer’s previous wildlife infraction for bear­ hunting in Wisconsin and his $127,000 pay­out in a sexual harassment complaint by an employee of his dental office, both of which were injected immediately into the first run of stories on Palmer. 

“The sexual harassment thing I’m certain set off a lot of debate in newsrooms over whether it was germane to the trophy hunting end of his story,” says Ison. “I personally would have argued that that kind of information about someone in this guy’s situation, being that it is publicly available, is relevant. Many I’m sure would disagree. It is something that did happen.”

The issue, though, is that a pay­out in a sexual harassment claim is not the same as a verdict of guilty. Yet reporting a pay­out, with detailed assertions made by the claimant, adds a rich extra coat of villainy to an as-­yet-­uncharged character already consigned to an extraordinary level of public vilification.

“That’s true,” says Ison. “A claim and a pay­out is not the same as guilt. And that presents a dilemma for reporters and editors. The question you face, as I say, is that this is knowable. It’s information that is immediately accessible about someone who has been involved in some way with a crime. Do you not report that?”

Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the U of M’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says, “This was and is a story custom ­made to pander to emotions. It gives a lot of fodder to people who have very strong views about hunting in general, trophy ­hunting particular. It is a situation where it is so easy to fall into a pit of emotionalism. Reporters have to make a real effort to report stories like this dispassionately.”

She agrees with Ison that given every reporter’s ready access to information about Zimbabwean government policies, the health of the lion population and other qualifying facets of the story, a dispassionate newsroom should have introduced those elements to the earliest possible versions of the story.

“This is great example of a story where context is easily lost in the rush to publish,” she says. “Which leads to one of my favorite issues, namely that the ‘legacy media’ or whatever you want to call it, has a special obligation in regards to context. I know it sounds old­-fashioned, but it’s so  fundamental to what they’ve got left. Everyone, every obscure website and every blogger in their basement, can incite emotions. Professional news people have to bring something better, context, to what they’re doing; otherwise they’re serving no greater purpose.”

But even reported with dispassion, the Palmer­ and ­the ­lion episode is an example of quantity alone delivering a near lethal dose of convicting vilification. Had the story been paved over in a day by something bigger/more interesting, its effect may ­­have been less damning of someone who has … not yet been charged. But lacking another story with anything remotely close to its emotional power, the story lingers in headlines for going on a week.

Kirtley, in Washington, D.C., preparing for a Fulbright Fellowship abroad next year, jokes, “I would argue that the nuclear deal with Iran is a far more important story to the broad population than this one about the lion. But unless you’re here in D.C. watching the TV commercials [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] is running against the Iran deal, there’s no comparison of the level of emotional interest.”

She too has concerns about the injection of the sexual harassment pay­out into the damning torrent of objective reporting. “Every reporter knows that there are a thousand reasons why someone may decide to settle a claim against them, and they don’t all have to do with being guilty of what someone has said. Simply reporting the fact of the pay­out has the effect of making a judgment. Frankly, it’s scary how many times I see the media conflate pay­out with guilt.”

The loaded term when it comes to the play this story has been given by the legacy/established/whatever media is “pandering.” It’s a word guaranteed to incite umbrage in serious newsrooms. But given the instinctual sense that the story was going to play both big and hot (confirmed by watching social media blow up prior to the first reports) — compounded by the resources and the continues to receive — it’s nearly impossible to ignore the commercial/show biz imperative to which newsrooms have acquiesced.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Tom Clarke on 08/03/2015 - 10:35 am.

    other info I’d like to read about the lion killing

    Did Dr Palmer also have a fishing violation in MN, which I think I read, in addition to the bear hunting violation in WI, and the sexual harrassment charge at the MN Dental Board and related settlement? The fish and wildlife violations reminded me of Gov. Ventura’s first candidate for MNDNR commissioner.

    How much did Dr Palmer’s trophy hunting trip cost, in total, including license, permits, guide fees, travel, lodging and other costs (bribes in Zimbabwe, one of the most corrupt countries in the world)? I have read $50,000 for the hunt. but no itemization. I would like to know how much went to the govt. wildlife authority in particular. How much of the hunting fees gets to the wildlife conservation efforts on the ground? These trophy hunts in Africa appear to cost a lot of money.

    The KQRS radio show people were making accusations today that the protesters are making such a big deal because Dr. Palmer is a wealthy, successful dentist (they expect to get some money from him) and that the protesters are threatening Dr. Palmer’s wife and child (children?)

    Thanks for the analysis. I hope to read more about these issues and news coverage.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/03/2015 - 10:40 am.

    In a word…

    My own response to the rhetorical question in the headline is:

    No.

    Not so much, I should add, by the way the story was reported. All the concerns expressed by both Ison and Kirtley seem relevant, and most, if not all, of those points would have come up in just about any newsroom worth its salt. My objection, such as it is, falls not so much on *how* the story was reported, but more on the prominence given to what, in a global context, is a relatively trivial event. Big-game trophy-hunting strikes me as singularly unappealing, and probably unjustifiable except by 2nd Amendment zealots and those, like the dentist in question, who actually pursue it. Almost everyone can find justification for what they’re doing if they need to.

    In the broader world, however, no matter how egregiously bad Walter Palmer’s judgment might or might not be, the incident does not – at least in my own mind – merit the sort of wall-to-wall, every media outlet available, coverage that it has received. 20 years ago, TV news might have given this 30 seconds at the end of the broadcast, and it would show up in a paragraph ‘way at the back of the newspaper. It’s emblematic of the decline in both the news business and the public’s thoughtfulness that this has ended up being a “big” story for as long as it has.

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 08/03/2015 - 04:23 pm.

      Ray, I respectfully disagree

      People carry an awful lot of anger and anguish around inside themselves about the state of the world: the exploitation, misery and increasing hopelessness of much of the human population; the approaching Sixth Extinction; the accelerating pace of climate change that undermines the whole of civilization; “the centre cannot hold” in all of its manifestations. And all due more than anything else to human selfishness and the hubris of power.

      If you sought to capture this ineffable emotion in an image, you couldn’t do it any better: an entitled white American going to Africa to kill an endangered lion so he could hang its head on his wall. If you were a political cartoonist a hundred years ago and wanted to comment on the rapaciousness of wealth in any of its forms – the trusts, the colonialists – you’d draw the white hunter in his pith helmet aiming at the primitive beast.

      I have no sympathy for Dr Palmer, who is deeply lacking in his morality and humanity. But while humans around the world are committing thoughtless and immoral acts at every moment, he had the misfortune of committing the act that is the perfect symbol of the sublimated pain of millions, with photos and videos to illustrate. His act precipitated a collective act of symbolic catharsis, and he is the target.

      This event, tragic for prey and predator alike, is astoundingly rich at numerous levels of symbol and reflection about the human condition. That makes it deeply newsworthy. Whether the media cover it for the right reasons is, of course, another story.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/05/2015 - 08:18 am.

        Two Thoughtful Comments

        Here are two thoughtful comments, each with its own philosophical perspective but without blatant slant (except for the gratuitous insertion of the 2nd Amendment).

        MinnPost seems to be succeeding in its attempt to elevate levels of discourse. Looking better.

        And, kudos to Mr. Holtman for rescuing “ineffable” from the pages of Norton anthologies. Nice touch, that.

  3. Submitted by Nick Wood on 08/03/2015 - 11:26 am.

    Teeth gnashing

    I don’t know what all the teeth gnashing from Mr. Lambert is all about…………..

    Wealthy dentist pays big money to shoot well-known lion, but apparently breaks local law in doing so. Photos available, along with history of past indiscretions (hunting and otherwise).

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/03/2015 - 12:19 pm.

    Simple Answer, No Dilemma

    Credible Reporters/Editors follow the story, not the fable, “gleaning” facts (and highly informed opinions) to post stories of interest, accuracy, developments and possible outcomes. The process is absolutely not “pandering;” but, a matter of properly calculating the interest quotient of the story, and not first forcing the process backwards.

    Let’s face it: It’s pretty lame to expect “hard news” from any Blog; however, some use better tools than others when shaping the piece to its audience. Honorable writers/editors employ clean leads.

    How to Vet a Blog: Look first at the comments. If we don’t like their tone, bias or literacy level, we probably shouldn’t bother with the main piece. MinnPost gave us a note about internal comment evaluations and processes, with no specific plan, but one perhaps depending on our comments to the comment quandary. If that sounds circular, it is, and demonstrates growing blog integrity pains.

    The honesty of news blogs requires exceptional managers and editors. When the news watch today tends to simply be checking some other news site, decisions to budget do really depend on bias, given the compressed “front page,” and perceived reader politics… frankly and unfortunately. Newspapers have always represented the outlook of their publishers, some blatantly. That’s why real cities had at least two papers, often more. Minneapolis had something like six or eight dailies in the late 1880s.

    The real problem with today’s sources is their greater motivation to push a story beyond common interest in favor of special interest readers and easy revenue. We all know those that do and those that don’t.

    The dilemma of MinnPost: To post stories from outside bloggers, arranging a front page embracing opinion and some information while honoring the author’s work product by scant editing. The decision is to post it, keep it up or pull it down, not change it by adjusting language and continuity to amend the integrity of the message and the writing.

    In the old days of newsprint journalism, editors used their pencils quickly and concisely before sending a piece to press. All of us certainly can comment on that potential for dishonestly shaping the story. Most of us can also attest to the intended positive result: Improved coherence and readability. Today that also means fewer incendiary comments to vet. WaPo and others simply don’t bother about vetting.

    Jane Kirtley notes, “Professional news people have to bring something better, context, to what they’re doing; otherwise they’re serving no greater purpose.” Yes, and editors need to again edit tone and prejudice in addition to purposefulness.

    Attempting to turn back the integrity clock via editorial management seems a clash of marketing plans.

  5. Submitted by Scott Kelley on 08/03/2015 - 09:47 pm.

    Pandering

    i enjoyed the article which brings up many good points about today’s news approach. However, more than the “legacy/established” media panders. The media, including the alternative media, writes for its audience which could be regarded as pandering. For example, Mr. Lambert “panders” to the MinnPost audience almost daily with his references to “Our Favorite Congresswoman” or his “Walker Watch” (two individuals I have no love for) whether or not they did anything newsworthy that day. These individuals usually generate the most comments on that day’s news summary. There’s nothing wrong with it but one could make an argument that he is pandering to his audience.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/03/2015 - 11:11 pm.

    Poaching

    The media has actually pretty consistently ignored the relevant factors. The dentist poached a bear and fished out of season. Two cases of breaking the law which he apparently felt didn’t apply to him. The sexual harassment settlement – he bought the victim off. Decent guys don’t harass – although the thrill of the chase is very much like the hunt. As someone who has apparently hunted for years in many places, how he can claim ignorance of local laws is hard to believe. It is possible to legally hunt lions there – but he didn’t bother. I have to believe because of his wealth and power, he considered himself above the law. That is the real story – stealing something that isn’t his through the act of poaching. He should be extradited to face trial.

  7. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/04/2015 - 09:29 am.

    River Bluff Denial

    Joel Stegner hits the raw nerve of this story. I’ve found more detailed and revelatory reporting in European press than any here. Those who wish to dismiss the local flash mob passion should know that the subject has received more immediate and detailed coverage over there. The Telegraph broke this story and continues to follow it in detail, as news more than editorial commentary.

    In one of the demonstration photos posted locally, we saw one clever bit of modification to the River Bluff Dental sign: the logo was amended with a paste-up.

    Clever, but they missed the obvious subtext: River Bluff Denial

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/04/2015 - 11:32 am.

    “Professional News People”

    I’m not convinced that many professional news people exist. There’s a whole lot of tripe coming from professional news people that isn’t much above blog grade, if above at all. Of course, it might be because professional news people aren’t paid like professional news people or expected to be more than entertainment, and professional news outlets would rather save a buck by replacing professional news people with anyone-with-a-GoPro-and-a-computer (writing, spelling, and comprehension skills unnecessary).

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