In 2009 the story of a bear sighting in Cleveland became world famous. Not because of the bear, but because of the way the story was covered. Field Notes editor Nicole Blanchett Neheli talks to FOX reporter Todd Meany about news satire gone awry — and a story that lives on, online. 


In 2009 the story of a bear sighting
in Cleveland became world famous. Not because of the bear, but because
of the way the story was covered. Field Notes editor Nicole Blanchett
Neheli talks to FOX reporter Todd Meany about news satire gone awry–and
a story that lives on, online.

“The best bear story
ever”. That was the subject line of an e-mail I recently received. The
focus of the story was a bear sighting in Cleveland. The way it was
reported was the focus of a controversy that crossed the border. In
order to truly appreciate why, you have to watch it. Here’s a link

Hysterical?
Yes—but perhaps not in the way intended. I showed it to my 11-year-old
son and he responded, “Is this real?” About a million people watched it
on various youtube uploads in the past two years, and judging from many
of the comments, didn’t understand the story was “satirical”. In one
Calgary newsroom, talk of including a cut out bear in stories of a
similar nature became a running gag.

Many of the colleagues I
showed this story to said, “He must have been joking”. But as a
testament to the quality of current news coverage, none was able to say
with certainty if it was a case of Will Ferrell-style local news
reporting or comedy by design.

Joke or not—this bear story had
legs (sorry, couldn’t resist). The reporter, Todd Meany, bore the brunt
of worldwide criticism and had to deal with local viewers furious over
the way he treated what they deemed a serious story.

I contacted
Meany to get his take on what happened. Here’s his emailed response to
my questions, with minor edits for ease of reading:

Was I surprised that some viewers took it seriously?

Todd Meany: Somewhat.
We are a fairly traditional news station. People expect humor from our
anchors during cross talk or during kicker stories, but don’t often see
it when it comes to the reporters, because it’s rarely done. For those
who are familiar with me, they know my sense of humor and realized the
satire. Those who didn’t get the satire might have thought it was dumb,
but I did attempt to include information into the piece. What was seen,
who saw the bear, where it was spotted, when it was spotted, and why
people shouldn’t worry about it. I hoped that would at least appease the
traditional viewers.


Did the interviewees know it was going to be satirical?
 
TM: The
witness did not; the naturalist/park ranger did to an extent.  I didn’t
even know that it was going to be satirical until the day was half
over?


Quick
backgrounder for you on the genesis of the story: Bear spotted by
several witnesses. I get assigned the story. No video/no photos, just
one witness. We interviewed the witness and had some broll of the
locations where the bear was spotted. We happened upon the nature center
where we found the park ranger, who was willing to interview us about
bear sightings. I was trying to avoid any file zoo footage of bears, or
random bear stuck in a tree file video. The ranger offered the cardboard
cut out as a joke. We then came up with the idea for the “re-creation”.


To
avoid the witness being part of the satire, I made sure to separate her
from the re-creation part of the story, and keep her in the news
portion.


How did I feel when it went viral?

TM: Mixed
feelings. I do a daily viewer feedback segment where people can
text/facebook about a topic of the day, so I’m used to getting the good
and downright bad in people.  I have pretty thick skin.  When it
appeared on youtube, the title was “WJW does a ridiculous story about a
bear sighting.”  I was a bit taken back by that: one because that wasn’t
my intention, and two because I had never had anything on youtube
before. I quickly learned that there is a huge dichotomy in news
viewership. The traditional nightly news viewers didn’t care to see the
humor in the story, because mainly they are looking for facts and/or an
emotional connection, humor is not what they’re looking for. The other
half who appreciated it are for lack of a better term, daily show
viewers/redditers. Those who enjoy getting information but are also
willing to accept it with a touch of humor or satirical analysis.

So,
I was glad for those who saw it for what it was, a funny news story.
And for those who thought it was ridiculous and unprofessional, I get
it.

Kudos to Meany for having the guts to talk about this so openly.

As for why this story was taken out of context by so many people, it doesn’t help that if you link to it from the video tab on the FOX website there’s no indication it’s anything but straight news. On a different page,
the station actually boasts “Todd Meany Report Voted Best of 2009” in
big, blue, bold letters. In the fine print it’s identified that it was
for “funniest local story” as awarded by buzzfeed.com. That statement is also somewhat out of context, as it appears buzzfeed’s award was handed out tongue in cheek.

Whether
humour was the appropriate format to tell a story about a subject that
was a serious concern to the community is another issue entirely. As is
not informing the subjects about the treatment of the story, and the
idea you can separate the “news portion” from “satire” within the
confines of one report. Clearly, that didn’t work.

From a theoretical perspective, this is a perfect example of media logic.
Adjust Meany’s script and replace “bear” with “suspect” in some places
and it could be a crime story. Basically, news content has become so
standardized —with a familiar language, grammar, rhythm, and format—that
no matter how over the top the news segment goes, like Meany wearing a
giant rabbit head, many viewers interpret the story as a traditional
news report.

In order to keep the audience engaged, and
therefore informed, there is a need for innovative reporting. Perhaps
Meany crossed the line in that effort. But the most relevant piece of
this puzzle is what the reaction to this story says about how news
organizations are viewed as a whole. What is the state of journalism
when thousands of people think a reporter prancing around with a cut out
bear isn’t joking? It appears the anchorman parody is seen by many as a
newsroom reality—and that’s bad news for broadcasters on both sides of
the border.

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