Additional information was added to this post on 3/17/2014, see the bottom of the post for details.
What I've seen of Blackfish hasn't inspired me to activate on the issue of wild animal captivity. Recently, when I sat down to watch a documentary, I gave myself the choice of watching either Blackfish or The Act Of Killing, a movie about humanity's apathy toward the issue of genocide. I chose the latter. Animal captivity is a top priority issue for some; I choose to grind my teeth on other topics.
Maybe it's due to living in San Diego, or maybe it's due to an echo chamber effect, or maybe the captivity of orca whales just is a more important issue than our collective apathy about stopping genocide, but my Twitter feed, full of local peers and figureheads, has been abuzz over Blackfish, in a way no other documentary in recent memory has. One major contributor to that conversation is Lisa Halverstadt and her team at Voice of San Diego, each of whom I know personally as valuable community members in their own right. Lisa set out on a "quest" to answer a whole bunch of questions about whale captivity, Blackfish, and SeaWorld in the context of San Diego.
The stories have been effective at attracting clicks to the VOSD website. Lisa's SeaWorld stories have appeared in, and often topped, VOSD's "Most Popular" list ever since she started writing them.
Early in her quest, Lisa sat down and watched "Blackfish" and wrote about the biggest claims the movie had made. She included SeaWorld's response to each claim in that story. Even at this early stage, something struck me as odd — SeaWorld's responses to the film's accusations were unchallenged in her story. That stuck out.
A follow-up story by Lisa entitled "Takeaways From SeaWorld's Big Anti-Blackfish Campaign" is, if I imagine working in PR for SeaWorld, a dream article for SeaWorld. Under the auspices of journalism, Voice published SeaWorld's entire defense against Blackfish, complete with screenshots of advertisements SeaWorld has purchased and had widely injected into Twitter timelines.
In my opinion, VOSD served up its entire audience to SeaWorld with this story; VOSD "reports" on SeaWorld's attacks against the film and offers no opposing perspectives on the central, controversial claims made by SeaWorld. Multiple SeaWorld employees are quoted in the story; not a solitary person with an opposite perspective is quoted, nor are competing perspectives acknowledged. Was the point of the story to cover SeaWorld's response to the film? Sure. But left unchallenged, and couched in the context of the next several articles, this story in particular is reduced to the level of propaganda.
Sometimes a news org will defend itself against publishing this kind of story by saying "we'll be following up with another story that gives similar kinds of coverage to the opposing side, where we will also offer up their views unopposed and unchallenged, and then we will have achieved balance." This claim is highly debatable, but we don't have to even discuss the legitimacy of that editorial strategy here because it didn't happen. To date, no such "unchallenged opposing viewpoint" article has been published.
Instead, VOSD has launched a series of articles enumerating SeaWorld's value to the San Diego area.
Millions of tourists and the money they bring with them are at stake. Millions of dollars paid by SeaWorld to the city for their leased land on Mission Bay.
Thousands of employees (no mention of the quality of these jobs) depend on SeaWorld. The park's enormous efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and re-release animals into the wild are in play.
There are no opposing viewpoints expressed or covered in this series of articles which has begun to feel a bit like a worship service of SeaWorld's economic import to San Diego. 11 articles into her quest, the message I am getting is: SeaWorld is under threat, and you have no idea how much you need them.
A timely bill showed up in the California legislature that would attempt to ban orca whales from being part of shows like the ones put on at SeaWorld. The headline of VOSD's story on the bill alarms readers that SeaWorld could be "devastated," and the article paints the bill as the potential end of an organization that VOSD just spent the prior several articles lauding for their value to the region. Supporters of the bill to ban the whales are named but not quoted; those that oppose the bill are quoted.
Are you starting to get the point being beaten into your heads, yet, San Diego? VOSD doesn't think so. So comes the next headline in the series: "How Much Shamu Means to SeaWorld." And the next: "Lease Gives Taxpayers a Stake in Shamu's Success." And if the one-sided reporting tactic continues, it's doubtful we are done yet. According to Lisa's recent article, "Next up: A look at SeaWorld's educational offerings."I wonder what it will say?
What should be "next up" is perhaps some discussion of censorship of anti-SeaWorld advertisements at the San Diego airport. Or perhaps an ongoing international movement to recognize the "rights" of whales and dolphins. Maybe, at the very least, we could start including the voices of some local SeaWorld protesters in the stories: they aren't hard to find. This series started because of a critical film; are those filmmakers so eager to have their voices excluded from the narrative?
How is it possible for a news organization to advocate for a private company in such an absolute way, without involving any opposing perspectives, over a such a numerous series of articles? Where are the responses from activists, and where are the opposing viewpoints of San Diego's dependence on SeaWorld? The answer is that they are on Twitter and in reader comments of the published stories.
Where are the discussions of the morality of keeping orca whales captive, as was promised in Lisa's first article?
11 stories in with no end in sight, with what appears to be an ample budget for reporting and freelance photography, I don't know the origins of VOSD's hunger for this one-sided coverage. CEO Scott Lewis has said that the idea for the coverage was his.
As I inferred at the beginning of this op-ed, I'm not particularly interested in this SeaWorld coverage, but it's certainly valid for VOSD to cover the topic assuming their motives are pure. But the coverage cannot be viewed as anything except slanted to the benefit of SeaWorld at this point.
As a contributor and member of VOSD, I'm always glad when they find an issue that inspires their audience to visit the site and read the articles. But the widespread opposition to SeaWorld needs to find a strong voice in their articles going forward — the only place to find that perspective, throughout 11 articles that have been published, is in VOSD's reader comment section.
Epilogue, added 3/17/14
After writing this op-ed, VOSD contacted me to assure me that additional coverage, which was already in progress before I wrote this critique, was proceeding according to their plan in such a way that would address the main concerns expressed here. Accordingly, I've added this epilogue to inform my readers of VOSD's awareness of and attentiveness to those concerns.
Disclosure: I donate to VOSD and regularly write their morning news column, "The Morning Report."
The original version of this story included a sentence that linked to a Twitter conversation where the tweeter expressed unfounded theories about VOSD's financial ties. Those kinds of claims aren't appropriate for this op-ed, so I've removed the sentence that contained the link.
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