Gerber: Covering critters: News or nonsense?

Gerber: Covering critters: News or nonsense?

October 20th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Alison Gerber

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Rats, mice, snakes, dogs and more rats.

Last week, the Times Free Press had more than enough stories about critters to go 'round.

Stories about animals always do well with readers. They generate lots of feedback, plenty of people read them online -- a good way to gauge reader interest -- and photos of animals are always big on the "Aww" factor.

Still, some critics say they're frivolous, that they aren't real news.

Tell that to the readers who generated huge interest in Chattanooga's proposed ordinance to allow urban chickens; some even expressed disappointment when it failed.

And there was lots of interest in the stories about the unfortunate Canada geese who were removed from the campus of Chattanooga State Community College. A story about how the geese were sent to a preserve because they were getting in the way of cars and leaving heaps of droppings behind each day generated many reader comments. A follow-up story about how the geese had actually been euthanized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program prompted even more feedback. Most were sympathetic to the geese, but a few were thrilled to no longer have to step in their mess.

Last week's animal-oriented stories were not exactly about cute, cuddly critters; and they don't have happy endings, either:

• Rats can be spotted running around in Miller Park, feasting in garbage cans and on food left behind by lunchtime eaters. Their presence has attracted hawks, which eat the rats. Problem is, the hawks don't eat the whole rat, so park visitors are faced with half-eaten, rotting rat carcasses dropped from the overhanging tree branches where the hawks like to dine.

• Two stray dogs that hung around the Dallas Bay Bi-Lo turned up dead and at least one resident thinks they were poisoned. Residents in the area have been leaving food, water and blankets for stray dogs for years.

• But the critter story that wins the Weird Award was about snakes and rodents at a local school. A replacement of the heating and air-conditioning systems at Brainerd High School apparently disturbed the campus' environment, prompting rats and mice to seek food inside the building. The snakes followed to prey on the rodents and could be seen crawling up the building walls, as a photo that ran in the newspaper showed.

The stray dogs, not surprisingly, received more sympathy than the rodents or snakes, but some readers questioned whether these are stories at all.

One woman told me downtown Chattanooga has long had a rat problem, in her opinion. Most urban centers do, she said. Is this a big scoop? she asked.

The story about stray dogs also triggered debate about its newsworthiness.

"How is this news?" one readers wrote on the newspaper's Facebook page.

"Why is it not?" a woman replied.

Animal stories are news because, when people see dead dogs in a grocery store parking lot or snakes at a school or rats in a park, they talk about it; they ask why it happened; they want to know if anything is being done to stop it.

When people are talking about something and asking questions about it, it's a newspaper's job to report on the issue.

And it's news because people are interested in animals -- whether they're cute puppies or slithering snakes.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.