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Last month, I wrote a short piece on the documentary “Blackfish” for Forbes.com, for whom I worked as a contributor. The piece centered on the documentary’s claim that orcas held in captivity become frustrated and may attack trainers as a result of their confinement. As a thinker and writer, I find such a proposition to be intuitively obvious, not to mention brilliantly documented in the film itself (and elsewhere).
I therefore had zero interest in pursuing (or even pretending to pursue) the disingenuous sort of “objectivity” that required a “fair and balanced” journalist to lend equal consideration to an absurd hypothesis, in this case the idea that orcas might actually enjoy captivity. As a blogger with a well-known animal rights perspective, I thought, why play that game? Why allow a corporation that profits from taking orcas from the wild claim that mantle of false legitimacy?
Twenty fours hours after being published, the piece generated more traffic than my previous twelve articles combined. For a while, it was the most viewed article on the website, attracting over 77,000 views.
Then I got some interesting news. My editor emailed to say that Forbes had taken down my story. A managing editor wanted to see three changes before considering whether or not to repost it. These included: a) a quote from SeaWorld; b) another source to temper the anti-SeaWorld perspective of one of my sources; and c) the inclusion of empirical evidence suggesting that Sea World’s popularity was in fact not being harmed by “Blackfish’s” acclaim.
Here’s an important point to keep in mind as I assess these requests: by the standards of journalistic convention, they weren’t necessarily unreasonable. Although it was the first substantial editorial intervention of any sort I had experienced at Forbes.com, I can’t really claim to be shocked by it.
But as I considered making the requested changes, a realization hit me like a lightening bolt: if I gave into these demands I’d be stepping into a trap every bit as confining as a SeaWorld tank. Whether or not Forbes.com was selectively flashing the “objectivity” card to reconfigure a story to serve an external interest remains an open question. But what’s perfectly clear is that making the requested changes would have legitimated the journalistic tactics that systematically prevent the inclusion of animal perspectives in the mainstream media.
I have no interest in being a bullhorn for the power elite. Nor do I wish to support the practices that support such a role.
So I quit.
On December 27, 2013, the New York Times published an article entitled “Turkey Legs Conquer Land of Mouse Ears.” The piece reported that super-sized turkey legs (containing 36 grams of fat and 720 calories) were currently all the rage at Disney’s theme parks. Following standard journalistic convention, the reporter included a variety of colorful endorsements of this increasingly popular snack.
- “It’s a chance to channel my inner cave woman,” one Disney patron was quoted saying while she gnawed on a leg.
- “I could kiss ‘em, caress ‘em, and sleep with ‘em all day and night,” a Yelp.com commenter was quoted as writing.
- “Our guests have come to demand these legs,” said Disney’s executive chef.
- “There is nothing like the smell,” an executive at another theme park was quoted as saying.
- “[They have] plenty of room to stretch their legs,” the President of the National Turkey Federation, an industry trade group, was quoted as saying about the big toms whose legs patrons were eating.
But the piece never quoted an animal advocate. That perspective made its only appearance in a brief letter to the Times from Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns.
Davis wrote: “Why are these Disney theme park turkey legs so big? Turkeys have been artificially bred to grow so large that their legs, big as they are, cannot support their body weight.” She continued, “In nature, turkeys are excellent runners whose favorite way of getting around is walking. Their domesticated cousins are sedentary cripples. What’s Disney-worthy about that?”
The Times turkey leg article is an ideal example of how poorly the mainstream media covers animal issues in general. Under the guise of objectivity, reporters solicit quotes from various parties who benefit from exploiting animals while ignoring the perspective of knowledgeable animal advocates whose dogs aren’t in that hunt. Even with a relatively benign pro-animal organization such as the Humane Society of the United States on hand to deliver neatly packaged quotables for reporters working on deadline, conventional journalistic practice in no way requires the inclusion of such a viewpoint. A letter or two from the fringe might help right the balance, but it’s usually too little too late.
My decision to quit Forbes over my SeaWorld story may seem drastic -- media reports certainly made it seem that way.
In fact it wasn’t. My editor and I parted on perfectly amicable terms, reluctantly respectful of each other’s perspective. More to the point, I ended up learning a valuable lesson: any future in which animals have a genuine voice in the media will require re-conceptualizing the meaning of responsible journalism. To that end, I want to explore in greater depth why I chose to walk away from the changes that my editors proposed.
a) The quote from a Sea World spokesperson.
In order to demonstrate SeaWorld’s disapproval of “Blackfish,” I quoted SeaWorld literature twice. So the last thing I thought my article required was an additional boilerplate remark from a SeaWorld spokesperson whose job it was to saturate the media with a pro-SeaWorld message. Instead, I decided it would be much more productive to involve SeaWorld in a substantive discussion on this specific question: did SeaWorld think orcas experienced stress in captivity?
With that goal in mind, I began to prepare a follow-up story by asking Fred Jacobs, a SeaWorld spokesperson, to comment on my claim that orcas became stressed in captivity. Next, I took his answer and asked the marine mammal biologist Dr. Naomi Rose to comment on it.
This “exchange,” which I ended up publishing on my blog, got several thousand views and was shared almost 5000 times on Facebook. In the end, it offers a far more accurate assessment of the essential question than a meaningless quote from a corporate spokesperson -- obtained in the name of objectivity -- could ever have provided.
b) An additional source to counterbalance my anti-SeaWorld source.
The ideal source for my piece needed to have deep knowledge of SeaWorld without being affiliated with SeaWorld. That source also needed a deep knowledge of “Blackfish” without being affiliated with “Blackfish.”
David Kirby fit the bill nicely. Kirby has worked for over 25 years as an investigative journalist, including extensive stints covering health and science for the New York Times. His most recent book, Death at SeaWorld, was widely praised for the rigorous quality of its research.
When I learned that Kirby was unaffiliated with “Blackfish,” but was well-informed about the film (he’s written about the documentary elsewhere), I consulted him to comment on the documentary’s assertions. His take on SeaWorld and the impact of orca captivity was unequivocal. “Blackfish,” he said, was dead on the mark.
The problem with Kirby, as far as Forbes was concerned, had absolutely nothing to do with his work on SeaWorld. No one there suggested that he had gotten a single aspect of that story wrong. Instead, it was his earlier work on the vaccine-autism debate that stirred up trouble. Kirby’s 2005 book, Evidence of Harm, in addition to his more recent coverage of a controversial debate, evidently rankled a Forbes health and science staff writer, who complained to my editor about Kirby’s role in my piece.
In and of itself, such a move doesn’t pose a problem. But a health and science writer’s assessment of Kirby’s past coverage of a vaccine debate could only be relevant to my current story on SeaWorld under one circumstance: if Kirby’s vaccine work proved Kirby to be a crackpot. Was this the case?
The world’s leading medical journal certainly didn’t think so. The Lancet, while acknowledging that Kirby was biased, still calls Evidence of Harm “engrossing,” says that it “contains all the requisite facts,” and ultimately praises it for “prompt[ing] us to dig deeper into this vital issue.”
In light of these considerations, I saw no reason to provide a competing -- or even an additional -- perspective to supplement Kirby’s sound assessment of orca captivity.
c) Include empirical evidence showing that SeaWorld’s popularity might have been unharmed by Blackfish.
In retrospect, the title of my article --“SeaWorld’s Popularity Tanks While The Blackfish Documentary Makes A Splash”-- was poorly chosen. My error. The article itself never seeks to make such a connection.
To wit, I do not highlight the fact that, as a National Geographic headline explained, “Schoolchildren and Musicians Boycott SeaWorld in “Blackfish Flap.” I forgo mention of The Daily Beast’s claim that “‘Blackfish’ Prompts SeaWorld Mass Exodus for Bands; Boycott May be Imminent.” I left out of my article the story of a 12-year old girl directly inspired by “Blackfish” getting arrested for protesting SeaWorld’s presence at the Rose Bowl Parade.
Although I do mention that SeaWorld’s stock price had dropped in the wake of “Blackfish.” I only do so to explain why the company recently took out full-page ads in major newspapers to counter what it deemed “inaccurate reports” swirling through the media.
Despite my article’s lack of attention to the impact of “Blackfish” on SeaWorld’s popularity, my editors pushed the hardest on this point. Specifically, they suggested that I include data showing that SeaWorld's projected 2013 profits -- which reflected record sales -- did not correlate with the rise of “Blackfish.”
In one sense, it would have been flat out strange for me to include such data. Again, the “Blackfish” impact on SeaWorld’s popularity wasn’t the primary concern of my article. More problematically, though, there were interpretive problems with using sales revenue as a valid measure of overall “popularity.” Ticket sales tell us how many people entered the park and what the price they paid to do so—and that’s really it. SeaWorld's profits were up in 2013 because the company raised prices to attract a tonier clientele. Interesting. But not relevant to the content of my article. And hardly a commentary on the company's overall popularity.
If anything, my article indicated that SeaWorld’s popularity in the media (including the social media) and with a younger demographic had slumped in the wake of “Blackfish.” Kirby’s assessment that SeaWorld was no longer “the media’s darling,” helped support that point, one that -- barring a massive meta-analysis of online content -- cannot be proven with hard numbers.
Forbes’s appeal to empirical data has the assuring ring of responsible journalism. But in this case -- as in others in which the continued exploitation of animals is at stake -- it’s inclusion would have led to the opposite outcome.
In the end, my experience covering SeaWorld for Forbes.com reminds me that it has never been easier for conventional media to use the basic standards of “objective journalism” to exclude animal interests while furthering those who profit from their exploitation. The good news is that (as sites such as The Dodo demonstrate) opportunities to pursue the kind of journalism that considers the interests of sentient animals are expanding rapidly. I don’t foresee any immediate journalistic revolutions on the horizon. But I do have faith that it won’t be long until you cannot write about turkey legs without writing about turkeys.