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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Freedom from the Press

I once read a novel in which a character compared talking to the police like tap-dancing on top of an avalanche.  With a lot of skill and some practice, you can stay upright, but you can't get off, and you can't steer.

I feel like the author could have just as effectively replaced the word "police" with "reporters."

Over the years, I've had to give a number of interviews to the press.  I've done stories for new babies, deaths, new acquisitions, new exhibits, wildlife rescues, and special events.  I've done stories about completely unrelated things that have happened at other zoos that people (for some reason) wanted our opinions on, and those annoying reporter-job-shadow stories.  And, of course, every year, like clockwork, I have to do a story on how animals cope with the cold in the winter and how they cope with the heat in the summer.

Almost all could be described in one word.  Cringeworthy.

Before I go any further, I'd like to say, I am ALL FOR a free press.  It's just that most of the reporters that I've had to work with over the years are really bad writers.  And really bad film editors.  And none of them seem to have any clue on how to tell a story, or even to turn a decent phrase.  They all have a tendency to swerve back and forth between using highfalutin, overly officious language one minute and talking to their audiences like they are three-year-olds the next.

And heaven help us with quotes... I once was doing a story on some endangered addax calves born at our zoo.  I talked at length with the reporter about how endangered they are, about collaborative breeding programs, about reintroduction efforts.  At one point, one approached the fence looking for a treat, and I made a comment to the effect of, "They really love to eat."

Guess what was THE ONLY quote that made it into the story?

Equally exasperating is the attempt to infuse as much drama as possible into each story.  I was doing a story about storm prep at the zoo, and the reporter made me reshoot one segment multiple times because she felt I wasn't putting enough drama and passion into it.  Apparently, she wanted me to convey, with tears in my eyes, that it was my only hope that some of our animals would survive the oncoming storm.  No, this wasn't Irma... or Harvey... or Katrina.  We ended up getting some moderate rain.  That's it.

I suspect this is because reporters given the zoo beat in our town are from the revolving-door pool of new reporters who are given the fluff pieces.  Each one of them seems determined to make every story a Pulitzer-winner, and you can tell that they are imagining each headline as it'll look scrawled across the front page of The New York Times.

As much as I hate doing interviews, I still try to volunteer to be the one to do them, if only because I worry about my coworkers doing them.  Many of them aren't as jaded as I am, and get that deer-in-the-headlights vibe when speaking to a reporter, with the result that they tend to babble.

There's a line to walk with reporters - be honest, by all means.  But never say anything that you don't want to see in tonight's news.

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