Gorillas, Theranos, And How To Weigh In On News Stories

06/03/16 -- Visitor


Several news stories this week are bringing out the real (and not-so-real) experts on social media and in the press. For thought leaders, the opportunity to write a piece hooked to a news story that involves your area of expertise has an irresistible appeal. But I urge you to proceed cautiously before dashing off a quick op-ed or article.  You could do a good job; your voice could get lost in the noise or, worse, you could egg on your critics.

Let's start with Harambe the gorilla. Unless you have been off the grid, you have heard about the three-year-old who snuck into the Cincinnati Zoo's gorilla habitat. Zookeepers killed the gorilla to protect the boy. Predictably, people began to weigh in on Twitter and Facebook. Wasn't this the mother's fault? How could she let her boy out of her sight, even for an instant?

Parent-judging is a blood sport on social media.

Next, a wave of mothers came to the Ohio mother's defense.  Joan Vennochi, a columnist for The Boston Globe, wrote about her own kids wriggling out of her sight. Most parents, including me, have lost a kid for a few minutes at a store, seen one defeat a child lock, or find a way through a tiny opening in a gate. Whenever it happens, it takes your breath away. But it happens.

As stories like this evolve, readers' antennae for nonsense go up. Thus, if you're going to wade into this kind of story – say you're a parenting or zoo design expert, you'd better do it right. The right way is to resist the impulse to jump into the storm and, instead, wait until the first wave of kneejerk responses blows over.  

The second wave of articles concerning a news event is almost always better than the first, because authors have had time to digest the facts and think more critically. Some people can write a thoughtful piece in hours after a newsworthy event, but most can't.  

"A Gorilla Is Killed, And Our Parent-Shaming Culture Springs To Life," is a good example of how to respond to a news story. The author, Barbara J. King, is an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary who, according to her bio, writes on "human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals." She has also written a book, How Animals Grieve.  

What did King do right? First, she gave the NPR.org editor a surprise twist. With her background, you'd expect she'd be writing about Harambe, but instead she wrote as a mother about parent-shaming. That's an unusual combination of expertise that would get an editor's attention in what was no doubt a crowded field of story pitchers.

Second, she didn't rush. The incident happened on Saturday, May 28; her story is dated Wednesday, June 1. She gave the matter some thought.

Third, she quoted two other experts, one a professor who has written about shaming culture, and one a developmental biologist and co-author of a parenting book. This added texture to her own experience with small children.

Fourth, while she is certainly a subject matter expert on topics including primate behavior, she doesn't use this article to plug herself. Her most current book is mentioned only in her bio. She does link to a TV interview she did after the incident, but the link strikes me (speaking as a former editor) as a way to offer readers more on the topic, rather than hawk her personal brand. Had she been blatantly self-promotional, it would have diluted her credibility.

Finally, she points readers to other useful articles on the topic, which is a helpful rather than a self-centered thing to do.

Experts considering contributed articles tied to a news story would be wise to use this approach as a model.

Another evolving news story teaches a different lesson for thought leaders.

Consider the ongoing, extensive coverage of Theranos, and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. In the latest development, Forbes yanked Holmes from its 2016 list of the richest self-made women in America, saying her estimated net worth had dropped from $4.5 billion in 2015 to zero, due to ongoing questions about her company's viability. (Holmes had been ranked number one on the Forbes 2015 list.)

The Theranos saga -- of a much-hyped Silicon Valley startup that started to unravel after investigative coverage by the Wall Street Journal questioned the reliability of its blood-testing technology -- has spawned many lessons-learned pieces, some smart, some not so smart.

The thought leaders critiquing Theranos and Holmes have even started to critique each other's critiques.

For instance, Fortune contributor Steve Tobak just wrote a piece about the dangers of idolizing entrepreneurs. In it, he specifically criticized a Washington Post op-ed by Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Stanford fellow Vivek Wadhwa, "Theranos teaches Silicon Valley a hard lesson about accountability," in which the authors skewered "Theranos, Holmes, the company's board and Silicon Valley for chronic lapses in corporate governance."  

Tobak points to a 2014 San Jose Mercury News article, "Meet Elizabeth Holmes, Silicon Valley's Latest Phenom," in which Wadhwa praised Holmes.  Tobak's point is that people idolize entrepreneurs uncritically, and then enjoy tearing them down. In the process, he takes a shot at Wadhwa.

I'm not sure how fair this is, digging up a two-year-old quote and spinning a lesson from it, but Wadhwa could have headed this off. If Wadhwa had noted in his Washington Post piece that he had once praised Holmes, Tobak wouldn't have had the ammunition to go gunning for him.

The lesson here is that if you're going to jump into the fray to write about Theranos, or any other news story, you'd better be ready for a thorough examination of  your past work.

Much more will be written about Theranos before this particular saga ends; more will be written about the sad story of Harambe and the boy. But thought leaders need to be careful when they jump on news stories. Speed, for thought leaders, is not of the essence. Developing a strong, unique, and compelling point of view takes time. Take it. 



Submitted by Keith R on

This is an interesting take, but in this day and age, news outlets, reporters, or anyone with a blog will not wait a couple of days to digest the story. As soon as someone gets wind of something happening, they are putting it out there. Many times, it will just be the framework of the story, with details coming later. Oh, a kid entered the gorilla enclosure? Lets be the first to publish that. Then the comments start rolling in (I call them idiot boards). We are in a speed of service era, with no regard to substance.
Barbara J. King is purely the exception, not the rule here.

Submitted by Bloom Group on

Thanks for the feedback. While news reporters won't wait on a news story like the Harambe incident, I would advocate that thought leaders can and should wait. A thought leader's job is not to break news. It is to add value -- expertise, context, advice. It's in the days-after analysis that subject matter experts can add that value. Breaking news and news analysis are two different things, as you point out. Thanks for reading -- Laurianne