Sell the Message, Not the Monkey

Covering the environment is generally tougher than, say, your standard crime story or traffic accident, thanks in part to the fact that green topics are often complex, slow-moving, and unsexy. But smart environmental journalists know they have least one ace to play in a pinch: cute animals.

There's a long tradition of parading out appealing animals like pandas, polar bears, and primates in order to educate the public about conservation and the environment. These so-called "charismatic megafauna" offer a convenient mascot and instant news pegs (monkey footage!) for topics from species extinction to habitat destruction to global warming. Ecologists might lament the fact that the public cares more about tigers than it does the dozens of endangered species of snails, but until that changes, such attention-grabbing animals can offer reporters a handy foothold from which to approach bigger environmental issues.

A look at this past weekend's network news programs reveals the old trick is alive and well. On CBS this Sunday, 60 Minutes led with a segment from Anderson Cooper, who reported from the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the complicated mix of local politics, economics, and stymied conservation efforts that resulted in the killing of an entire family of endangered mountain gorillas. Over at ABC News, Nightline ran a long segment on the plight of Borneo's orangutans, using shots of primates at play to lead into a look at the destruction of rainforest in Indonesia. The rainforest was cleared to produce palm oil, an "eco-friendly" biofuel. NBC Nightly News delivered an even better, more substantive look at palm oil and the Borneo orangutans in a report that same night.

But as useful as these animals can be for making compelling journalism about the complexities of the natural world, it's possible to misfire, as ABC News did during its nightly news program on Friday night when it ran a much shorter version of the Nightline report. The segment was so condensed, in fact, that it cut out almost all explanation of how palm oil was driving deforestation and instead focused on cute shots of baby orangutans. Adorable, but isn't that what Animal Planet is for? The complaint with trotting out charismatic megafauna has always been that they tend to overshadow other species along with the larger ecological story. When journalists lose sight of the big picture, they can end up filing reports like this one. All monkey, no message.


National Geographic posted this video about the gorilla massacre before the Anderson Cooper segment aired, and it's got message AND monkey: