When the WLWT Cincinnati newsroom heard on a scanner that a child fell into the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla enclosure, the place went dead silent.
“Everyone looked at each other and asked whether they really heard that,” said news director Jeff Benscoter.
That May 28 moment was the last quiet one at WLWT – or any Cincinnati TV station for that matter. The story, which ended in the endangered gorilla’s shooting, sparked worldwide fervor around particularly passionate issues – the ethics of zoos, animal rights, parenting and, ultimately, who is to blame for the death of 450-pound Harambe.
“As soon as I saw the push alert I knew this would be a huge story and get a lot of reaction on many different levels,” said Jeff Brogan, VP and general manager of ABC affiliate WCPO. “It had all the makings of a social media explosion and my gut was right.”
Local TV jumped on the story, which lit up via news outlets and social media around the world.
Ethics came into play from the get-go. Brogan says his team, which initially received an edited video of the incident from ABC, “felt very strongly” about airing the entire video, which includes footage of Harambe dragging the 3-year-old boy through a water-filled moat, so viewers could understand what really occurred and why.
“When you see the child being dragged in that moat it really gives you perspective,” he said.
WLWT, however, had a different take on airing the video. Benscoter said he felt equally strongly about not showing Harambe dragging the child until he knew for sure that the child didn’t sustain life-threatening injuries during the incident. Once the boy was cleared, the station aired video provided by a viewer.
Stations also weighed how best to glean insight and stories from public input, as emotions ran so high it had to be weighed accordingly. “We have tried really, really hard to tell the story in a responsible way and not just put anyone on television,” Brogan said.
Viewers posted death threats aimed at the boy’s mom on station Facebook pages.
Media from England, New Zealand and Australia asked to interview local reporters.
WCPO ran all related press conferences live. WLWT interviewed a Northern Ohio woman who also received death threats because she shared the boy’s mom’s name.
News execs say they don’t expect the story to quiet down anytime soon. On June 6, prosecutors will decide whether to file any charges of negligence against the boy’s family. It also has raised a breadth of moral and ethical issues that warrant coverage beyond the Harambe incident.
“We believe there are still a number of stories to be told,” Brogan said.
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