June 1, 2016

Cameron Knight figured Saturday would be a good day to catch up on some weekend work. Barring any breaking news, he planned to finish a Memorial Day story and a piece on the anniversary of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.

As the breaking news reporter at The Cincinnati Enquirer worked, he listened to the constant chatter of scanners in the background. The newsroom was mostly empty.

Around 4 p.m. on Saturday, Knight heard a report that a child had fallen into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

He listened in more closely. Police scanners have a rhythm, so he knew that soon an officer would check in from the zoo. And he knew it could also be a generalization. Maybe a child fell near the gorilla exhibit. Knight waited. Soon, that report from the zoo came in. Knight grabbed the bag he keeps ready, got into his car and headed for the zoo.

He was one of the first journalists to arrive, but by that time, it was all over. The male western lowland gorilla, Harambe, was dead. The story of what happened, how it happened and how the world would react was just getting started.

“I’ve never covered a story that has had this much reaction,” said Knight, a photojournalist who took a shot at the breaking news spot to join the Enquirer. There’s outrage at the zoo, outrage at the parents, outrage at people who are outraged at the zoo and outrage at people who are outraged at the parents.

From that very first story, reactions on social media have been a part of the story, but they haven’t been the whole story.

“I think that we’ve made the correct decision in acknowledging it from the beginning, but not necessarily playing it up until we had a couple days to really dig into it,” Knight said.

Reporter Mark Curnutte followed up Monday with a look at the social media impact of the story in the community. Curnutte included the detail that Cincinnati police planned to reach out to the boy’s mother to make her aware of threats on social media. That story appeared on the Enquirer’s front page on Tuesday. And the approach offered some nuance, Knight said, “as opposed to someone just saying ‘look at all these people who are yelling,’ which we saw a lot of.”

That has been deliberate.

The story of what happened at the zoo crosses the intersections of parent shaming, animal rights activism and race in Cincinnati, said Katie Vogel, the Enquirer’s engagement editor.

“It really is at the center of a powerful and deeply provocative Venn diagram.”

It takes about 15 minutes to embed tweets and Facebook comments and get a piece out, she said. The Enquirer decided, instead, to take some time and look into the reaction.

“We want to be a part of elevating the conversation as opposed to being a part of the firestorm,” she said.

The huge response on social media isn’t really the most important part of the story, said Peter Bhatia, the Enquirer’s editor. It’s a side show. Among the results of avoiding too much “look at this” coverage? Record-breaking traffic.

“Our numbers are astounding,” Bhatia said.

Stories about what happened at the zoo have gotten a combined two million pageviews, he said, and on a Tuesday afternoon, Cincinnati.com had about 1,000 more visitors than normal. Along with stories on the continuing investigation, other work includes an obituary on Harambe by reporter Shauna Steigerwald, a look at what will become of Harambe’s remains and a profile of Harambe’s caretaker. Knight’s first story, written with producer Mallorie Sullivan, has had 898,033 pageviews and 765,756 unique visitors on mobile, Vogel said. The Facebook reach has gotten up to 8.5 million and post engagement is at more than 1 million. Week over week, that’s an 835 percent increase for reach and a 520 percent increase in post engagement.

There’s also a short, shareable graphic video looking at what actually happened. And they’ve covered the story on Snapchat and Facebook Live.

“For us, this has really been our first major news event since we’ve been utilizing Facebook Live, and the engagement and curiosity that we are seeing from our community of readers, it really speaks to the power of Facebook Live in terms of reaching a larger audience exactly where they’re at,” Vogel said.

That first press conference Knight attended has been viewed more than one million times.

Steigerwald, a features reporter who covers the zoo and is a Cincinnati native, expected people would be interested in the story, “but I definitely didn’t expect it to blow up the way it has,” she said. “I’ve been interviewed on CNN, Headline News, the BBC and a New Zealand radio station. I haven’t experienced anything remotely like it before.”

But she understands two these two things: Gorillas are a beloved species, and “human beings have a tendency, in a tragic situation, to point fingers or assign blame. We’ve seen a staggering amount of that on social media in this case.”

The Enquirer hasn’t named the mother of the little boy who fell into the gorilla exhibit, and that’s also been deliberate, Bhatia said. They plan to. Eventually.

“There just didn’t seem to be any hurry in doing so, and frankly some of the stuff that’s out there that’s been written about her and her family is, in my judgement, bad journalism,” he said. “We live here, and she lives here. Perhaps that imposes a higher level of responsibility.”

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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