When the Reporter Becomes Part of the Story (Aggressive Reporter Covering Pittsburgh Zoo Death)

Students who are new to journalism often introduce a quote like this:

When asked about a habit he’d most like his journalism students to break, Dennis Jerz said, “Usually when I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to throw.”

We only encounter that phrase in reporting, so when students start writing news reports, they tend to gravitate towards that phrase. In truth, that phrase is only used in very specific circumstances, in order to convey to the audience that the subject of the news report did not bring up the topic, but is responding to a direct question introduced by the reporter, in a context that might otherwise be misleading.

Usually, my students can revise so that the quote does more of the work:

“Usually when I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to throw,” said Dennis Jerz, a college teacher whose journalism students tend to overuse the phrase.

In the case of the 2-year-old mauled by wild dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo yesterday, a zoo official who is probably more used to delivering cheerful news about frolicking polar bears and baby elephants faced some unusually aggressive questions from a reporter. Her defensive statement “There is no such thing as a failproof exhibit” could be seen as harsh or dismissive of the tragic loss of a tiny life, if that phrase were reported out of context. In order to avoid the potential misunderstanding, a journalist is ethically obligated to be proactive, describing the situation, so that the readers can put the quote in its proper context.

One reporter asked Baker whether she took responsibility for not creating a fail-proof exhibit.

“Life is full of risk,” she said. “There’s no fail-proof part of risk in life. We do everything we possibly can and evaluate it every day. The safety not only of our visitors but our staff as well. We work with wild animals, we work with dangerous animals every day.”

The reporter interrupted and pressed her: Do you take responsibility for not creating a failproof exhibit?

“There is no such thing as a failproof exhibit,” she said.

via UPDATE: Pittsburgh Zoo CEO says boy was killed by dogs, not fall – latimes.com.

The LA Times did not include the reporter’s question as a lazy way of introducing what happened next; rather, details about the way the question was asked provide important context — the zoo spokesperson was being pushed to make an extreme statement, and she pushed back a little. (Good for her! She’s doing her job.)

This is a real-world example of a rare case when it is appropriate to mention the reporter’s question in order to help the reader understand the response (see “Invisible Observer“).