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.