By Sarah Barchus
"It was a hair brain idea," Berens said.
Berens said he had been working on a project on the painkiller methadone and after a particularity tough interview he joked with colleagues that his next story would just be about "fuzzy little animals."
What started as a joke turned into an investigation about one of the zoo's most recognizable animals--the elephant, Berens said.
Berens said that it took about 3-4 months to get a good handle on all the information. This involved first contacting a foreign zoologist who had compiled data on elephants, then obtaining pdfs of elephant "studbooks," filing public record requests, google searching and finally entering missing information by hand into excel.
With that enormous pile of information, Berens had to decide what to include in the story.
"We use what fits with the theme of the story--what readers need to be convinced," Berens said.
For this story, that meant statistics like the fact that for every one elephant born in captivity, two die, Berens said.
The technical side of the project wasn't that difficult, which Berens said only required basic computer skills like being able to use Microsoft
Excel and Access.
"It doesn't have to be hard, and it isn't," Berens said. "It's still all about the creativity."
The creativity in the Glamor Bests project resulted from the combined efforts of a team of 30, Berens said.
"We had a lot of discussions about what held the most value for readers," Berens said. "We thought about the different subsets of readers and how to present the information in the easiest way for the reader to absorb."
And many people did absorb the story, whether they read the article, watched the video, paged through pictures or explored the data through interactive graphics. Berens said his inbox alone saw around 500 emails from people saying they were "gratified that someone was tackling a complex issue with precision to make an airtight story."
But not all people were happy with Berens' story. Berens said the greatest challenge was having "highly credentialed, intelligent people tell me I was wrong" and having zoo officials lie to him. Berens said he found himself struggling to cut through the smoke screen. But that's all part of the job.
"In document-based journalism you tell what he said and what she said," Berens said. "Then you tell who is lying."
Berens says the data is what makes a story irrefutable. Berens said the most significant and compelling proof he found was peer-reviewed published research from the zoo industry saying that elephants are not doing well.
Praised by some, challenged by others, Berenes said he felt gratified by the project and was able to do his job by putting the spotlight on the issue and letting people see and judge it for themselves.