By Sarah Barchus
After persistent attempts to reach the reporter and the editor of the Seattle Times article "Glamor Beasts: The dark side of elephant captivity," I was still unable to connect with anyone to discuss the process of gathering, consolidating and reporting large sets of data. However, I was able to find a "How we did it" article written by the reporter that answered some of the questions I would have asked him.
The reporter, Michael J. Berens, said that the Seattle Times team was greatly challenged by the project because United States zoos don't keep a comprehensive record of elephant births and deaths.
To find this information the Seattle Times needed to examine studbooks, which track elephant breeding, and research from Swedish zookeeper Dan Koehl's database of worldwide elephant ownership, which included notes of elephant birth and deaths, according to the article.
Berens said the Seattle Times created its own database and verified each elephant's history. When they encountered gaps in the story, the Seattle Times with the help of two researchers used public records from zoos and old newspaper articles to complete the picture, according to the supplement article.
The Seattle Times focused on the past 50 years, although they compiled data from the past century, Berens said. They tracked the history of the Woodland Park Zoo's elephant program through zookeeper logs, medical-history charts, clinical-pathology records, diagnostic-laboratory results, zoo memorandums and emails and interviews with top officials involved with the program, according to the supplement article.
To gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation, the Seattle Times examined court records, zoo-industry research reports, legislative hearings and zoo financial records, Berens said.
Gaining the information was obviously an extensive process. I planned to ask Berens why the Seattle Times decided to pursue the project in the first place. My guess is they believed it was a relevant story because according to the research elephants could become "demographically extinct" in the next 50 years.
I was also going to ask how they decided what information to use in the story when they had gathered so much. This was somewhat answered when Berens said they used data from the last 50 years because that's when the first birth of an elephant in North American zoo occurred.
Lastly, I would have asked how they decided to best present vast information in a condensed, interesting story. This was answered by the story itself. The Seattle Times didn't settle for simple text. In order for readers to truly explore the situation, the Seattle Times created multiple story supplements including, an interactive family tree, a photo gallery, excerpts from documents used in the creation of the story, an interactive map that shows where elephants died and details the cause, and lastly a graph that visually displays how elephant deaths are higher than births.
The project required strong computer skills such as data entry and coding as well as the collaborative efforts of many, including a reporter, photographer, multimedia producer, editor, desk editor, photo editor, print designer, graphic designers, another producer, web designer and developer, audio producers and researchers, according to the credits listed at the bottom of the "How we did it" article.