When the Crowd Roars

The Internet backlash against dentist Walter Palmer for killing Cecil the lion is one of the best examples of mob journalism ever. The narrative spreading across the InterWebs is some ways well-meaning but in many more is destructive. Meanwhile, the force of collective-will tempts too many journalists to join the mob opinion, when they should stand aside and offer objective and responsible reporting.

Before writing another word, I must praise National Geographic for the best reporting about this event. The magazine offers broader perspective and, more importantly, puts big game hunting into larger context, while taking an objective tone. The raging mob’s perspective is myopic, and news sites supporting it fail the public good.

Mob Journalism
In my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers, I identity seven kinds of journalism during what authors Shel Israel and Robert Scoble call the Age of Context. Five get full chapters: advocacy, conversational, contextual, mob, and process. The other two journalisms: Data and immersive. Among them, mob journalism is the strongest byproduct of the social web, and it imperials truth if not properly checked by responsible reporting.

From the book:

Mob journalism is news generated by the crowd. The mob gets ahold of something one of its members deems interesting and widely spreads it. There is a different quality to mob journalism—a unified sense of rightness about what’s shared…The chain of spreading connections highly influences opinion…

Mob journalism isn’t confined to the masses but extends to the collective group of journalists…Most disturbing: Where the public crowd leads to a media mob, which reinforces the original group’s advocacy. The reciprocal cycle too often fosters misinformation, where what people say is true trumps what actually is…

Mob journalism is a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. The crowd’s voice—amplified across Facebook, Twitter, and similar sharing tools—can be useful for investigative and other types of reporting when wielded by discerning, responsible news gatherers. Mishandled, rapid-fire online reaction is too easily an assault rifle blasting apart anything but the mob’s viewpoint.

The worst mob journalism leads to an adverse outcome that turns against the crowd’s objectives. The Cecil uproar (absolutely no pun intended) will likely lead to public policy changes in Africa and elsewhere that long term could do more harm to wildlife than the killing of a single lion. My longstanding observation: When the mob rules, rules change adversely.

Yesterday, Max Fisher smartly writes about the dangers of “mob justice“:

What Palmer did was wrong, and he deserves to be punished to the full extent of the law. But it’s easy to forget just how dangerous and unjust ‘mob justice’ is while it’s targeting someone you despise. The more this behavior is normalized, the more likely it is to be deployed against targets who might not necessarily deserve to have their lives destroyed—including, perhaps one day, against you.

His commentary/analysis is must-read.

What We Know to Be True
1. Thirteen year-old Cecil was a protected lion living in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. He has often been called the country’s most famous lion.

2. Someone killed the animal around July 1, 2015.

3. Three week’s later, the UK’s Telegraph identified Palmer as the hunter. The Minnesota dentist reportedly paid $55,000 for the opportunity to kill the lion, which allegedly was lured out of the protected zone. He used bow and arrow to wound Cecil, who was later shot to death, after about 40 hours of suffering.

4. Dr. Palmer acknowledged the killing, issuing statement, in part:

In early July, I was in Zimbabwe on a bow hunting trip for big game. I hired several professional guides and they secured all proper permits. To my knowledge, everything about this trip was legal and properly handled and conducted. I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.

5. Internet outrage spread like wildfire across social services like Twitter, including nasty reviews on the Yelp page for his dental practice. The office since closed.

6. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service sought to speak with Palmer, who is responding. Earlier, more sensational reports claimed that he had disappeared.

7. Today, Zimbabwe demanded that the United States extradite the dentist for “foreign poaching“.

8. The New York Times profiled Palmer six years ago, spotlighting his bow-and-arrow hunting skills.

Outrageous Behavior
Before continuing, I am not an advocate for or against big-game hunting. I am an advocate for reporting responsibly and presenting the many nuances behind ongoing events. Mob rule is myopic. Singular view presents an understandable narrative that is emotional and satisfying but that ignores other information. When journalists join the myopic mob, they violate The Prime Directive: Write what you know to be true in the moment (based on  your sourced reporting).

The Internet mob, and journalists joining it, present Palmer’s actions as outrageous. Why isn’t their own? Because the attacks against the dentist are vicious. I make no excuse for his behavior hunting Cecil but wonder: What excuse is there, justification for, making him trophy of the Internet mob?

You can see some of the vindictive comments at the Google page for his dental practice. The Facebook page is down. There are 493 reviews on his Bloomington, Minn.-based practice’s Yelp as I write. These aren’t local yokels but the crowd roaring against the dentist. Top of the page earlier today:

  • Kevin, Seattle, Wash.: “Dear Dr. Death, how does it feel to be the most hated person in the World right now?…Truth be told, I hope karma pays you back 10 fold and you suffer an agonizing painful 40-hour horrific life altering experience”.
  • Jimmy, Beuna Park, Calif.: “To Yelp, you better not remove this review you Mother F’ers. This is why your Yelp will go down. Please do not patronize this bastard. How could he not have seen the GPS collar that Cecil ‘our beloved’ lion was wearing before he shot it with his bow?”
  • Michelle, New York City: “Hey, Walter, if you have an ounce of humanity in you, you’ll turn yourself in, but that is doubtful—all you care about is the legality of what you did…are you that much of a pussy and failure amongst humans that you have to conquer precious animals?”
  • Christian, San Diego, Calif: “Asshole-let the hunger games begin. Enjoy. Maybe you will be skinned and your veneers ripped out and mounted on a wall”.

These are mild compared to others, many of which are gone. Days ago, Yelp removed several thousand reviews. The process continues.

That’s good segue into some of news stories. Let’s start with Venture Beat’s “Yelp is scrubbing thousands of angry comments from the page of a lion-murdering dentist“, by Fletcher Babb. “Murdering” in the headline advocates a point of view rather than takes an objective position—as does the lede: “You might have read about the tragic death of Cecil the lion, a beloved mascot of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park”. Use of “tragic” and “beloved”, particularly in context of the story and sentiment around its posting, is editorialization. Deadspin, ah spins: “Dipshit Midwestern Dentist Identified As Cecil The Lion’s Killer“, by Albert Burneko.

Neither of these are editorials, and I randomly chose both. They’re supposed to be news stories. Playing to the mob is great for comments, pageviews, and social shares. The VB story has 170 comments. Deadspin: 18,000 Facebook Likes and 226,000 shares. By being part of the mob, the news sites raise ranking with Google Search, from which they can reap greater advertising rewards.

Borderline news, we have from Time magazine: “‘Walter Palmer Is Satan’: Celebrities Rage Over Cecil the Lion’s Killer” by Joanna Plucinska. There is much worse—and some better.

But as I write, three days after Palmer was identified, the mob rules the news and social media. For another perspective on the online social dynamics, I strongly suggest reading “My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage” by James Hamblin, for The Atlantic. Snippet:

The Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts. The greatest return comes from a strong and superior point of view, on high moral ground. And there is, fortunately and unfortunately, always higher moral ground…

The people who hadn’t jumped on the Cecil-outrage bandwagon jumped on the superiority-outrage bandwagon. It’s a bandwagon of outrage one-upmanship, and it’s just as rewarding as the original outrage bandwagon.

National Geo Shines
I can’t say enough good about the magazine’s news reporting about the killing of Cecil the lion. Each and every story seeks to provide perspective about the incident and what it means in larger context. The mob doesn’t rule here.

Let’s review some of the reporting, starting with today’s “Cecil Is One of Hundreds of Lions Killed Recently in Zimbabwe“, by Brian Clark Howard.

For all the attention Cecil has garnered, trophy hunting isn’t the biggest threat to Zimbabwe’s lions. Loss of habitat and prey species such as gazelles and wildebeest are more serious concerns. And farmers, villagers, and poachers have killed more of the big cats illegally over recent years than legal trophy hunters, with more clashes between people and lions along park borders.

The mob’s obsession with Palmer ignores larger threats to the lions, of which Brian reports 80 percent live in protected areas in the country. “Across the continent, lion numbers have plummeted by more than 80 percent over the past century, from 200,000 to less than 30,000”, Brian writes. Hunting and poaching are part of a larger problem.

Two days ago, National Geo posted the story that brought my attention to its reporting—again, Brian is the writer: “Can Lion Trophy Hunting Support Conservation?“. Say what? He asks a question you don’t hear from the myopic mob. Excerpt:

A number of mainstream scientists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and some conservation groups—including the World Wildlife Fund (which has not returned a request for comment on the Cecil issue)—support regulated trophy hunting. Supporters say regulated hunts raise much-needed money for conservation and help manage populations, since game officials typically try to make sure hunters target animals that are no longer able to breed or that might inhibit the reproduction of others around them.

What I find interesting, if accurately reported in the story, are references to several conservation groups that in the past supported regulated hunts but are silent now. That’s bowing-before-the-mob behavior.

Another: “Killing of Cecil the Lion Sparks Debate Over Trophy Hunts“. The lede is clear and objective:

The killing of one of Zimbabwe’s best known and most-studied lions, Cecil the Lion, has stoked a debate around a growing trend in trophy hunting of endangered species. Cecil was shot with a bow, stalked for 40 hours, and gunned down by trophy hunters. The big cat was skinned and had his head removed. Thirteen-year-old Cecil had been studied by scientists from Oxford University as part of a project that has run since 1999.

While many people might become angry about the animal’s death, they will do so based on facts presented as news rather than blusterous editorialization. More importantly, the story complements the “Conversation” article with a different—and in many ways opposing—perspective. Brian writes:

African wildlife often roam large distances and frequently move in and out of parks and protected areas. That can make regulation of hunting in specific areas tricky. When a dominant male lion is killed, another male will take his place at the head of the pride. Typically, he will kill any existing cubs, in order to make room for his own offspring. Cecil had an estimated 24 cubs among six lionesses.

Legal trophy hunting is supposed to raise money for conservation efforts, according to international treaties. But critics say corruption often siphons off the funds. And skins, bones, and other materials resulting from a hunt can find their way into the black market, where they fuel demand in Asia for traditional cures or status symbols.

The reporter and the magazine practice good journalism, in defiance of the mob. These two news stories, among others, also show just how myopic is the mob’s perspective, particularly focused on this one kill. Ending legal hunts could evaporate license fees and other funds vital to conservation efforts. Or, on the positive, maybe the publicity will motivate wealthy philanthropists to step forward and make up for the funds lost should legal hunts end. Or something else could occur.

But there is huge historical precedent to concern with: When the mob rules the news, governments and institutions often respond with reactionary policies that are counter-productive, if not destructive. Because reactionary policies typically are as myopic as the mob’s collective agenda.

The news media’s responsibility is to serve the public interest, not the public’s outrage, and that means educating the mob rather than joining it. National Geographic‘s reporting rises above the roar, setting an example for other news outlets to adopt. Soon, as this posts, I will resubscribe.