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ivoh | November 18, 2017

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The value of ethics

Chris Palmer

Chris Palmer

By Chris Palmer

I credit my career in environmental filmmaking to one of the great statesmen of our time, the leather-jacketed, heavy-booted scholar and gentleman known as “the Fonz.” Fonzie, the iconic character played by Henry Winkler on ABC’s Happy Days, didn’t just bring smiles to people’s faces, he prompted them to take action. After an episode in which he signed up for a library card, millions of kids swarmed the nation’s libraries and applied for their first cards.

When I heard about that episode, I couldn’t help wondering whether television could be used to promote environmental conservation. In the years since, I have been both amazed by the ability television has to spread a message of environmental consciousness, and heartbroken by the compromises made by filmmakers for increased ratings. And I have seen the value of sticking to your ethical standards amid the flurry of fiscal concerns and the race for ratings.

The world of documentary film production was a far cry from my previous jobs. Starting in 1976, I’d been chief energy advisor to Senator Charles H. Percy of Illinois, worked for President Jimmy Carter’s Environmental Protection Agency, and had lobbied Congress on energy and environmental issues for the National Audubon Society. In the Audubon job it was not unusual to spend days preparing testimony for a congressional hearing on a critical environmental bill, only to arrive in a Capitol Hill conference room to find one solitary senator. Meanwhile, a charismatic “greaser” on Happy Days was influencing the lives of millions. I became convinced that television was the answer.

I jumped at the opportunity Ted Turner offered me in 1982. He gave me a chance to develop environmental programming for his WTBS Superstation. At the time, TV wildlife documentaries were mostly dry depictions of natural history mixed with such straightforward accounts as the life of the wildebeest. We decided, instead, to combine celebrity hosts and good storytelling with an in-depth exploration of the political and social problems that threaten animal habitats and our environment in general. In the process, it revolutionized the way people viewed nature and wildlife.

Today, twenty-five years later, I’ve worked as a film producer for several different institutions. I’ve traveled all over the world producing hundreds of hours of environmental and wildlife television programs and made IMAX movies on topics ranging from whales to wolves. During that time, wildlife filmmaking has grown and prospered, proving itself a useful tool for informing, entertaining and inspiring a broad segment of the public. I’ve learned a great deal about the art, science and business of bringing powerful stories about wild animals to the screen. And I’ve learned that animals face not only the huge and obvious threats of habitat destruction, poaching and pollution, but also threats from filmmakers themselves.

The proliferation of wildlife shows in recent years has created a species of wildlife paparazzi – filmmakers who harass and even endanger animals to capture “money shots.” The aggressive tactics they use to draw animals to the film site and capture unnatural scenes, such as man- made feeding frenzies, can produce “wildlife pornography,” where animals are exploited for viewers’ pleasure and funders’ return on investment. Too many filmmakers are interested only in showcasing the blood, guts and sex of the animal kingdom and have apparently no interest in promoting conservation. In fact these producers often deliberately cause violence to get footage. They “callously taunt and harass wildlife for entertainment,” says veteran filmmaker Vanessa Schulz. As she points out, the producers of such shows send a message that greed justifies such disrespect for other living beings.

The difficult part for those of us who would fight sensationalism is that sensationalism seems to work – at least in a commercial sense. As television programs go to increasingly dangerous extremes to grasp viewers’ attention and win higher ratings, audiences seem to enjoy the super- charged excitement of wild animals mating and appear fascinated by the violence of gnashing fangs, spilling blood, and ripping flesh. From the safety of armchairs, they get an adrenaline rush. Filmmaker Tom Veltre, who is a professor of media studies, asks, “What does it say about us as a society that there continues to be a market for such carnage? We haven’t come far since the days of the Roman amphitheater?”

Regardless of what these films may reveal about us, though, they produce high ratings, network profits and executive bonuses. Even those filmmakers with the noblest of intentions are influenced by the success of these sensationalistic programs. I should know.

To my eternal shame, I once approved a print ad from the TBS Superstation’s marketing department that featured a close-up of a snarling grizzly bear with the words, “Five-inch fangs are no match for a high caliber rifle.” Unbenownst to readers, the bear was captive and trained, and I later realized I was as guilty as anyone else of sensationalizing grizzly bears to attract an audience. When people see animals as dangerous or menacing, they feel justified in killing them.

This is the true power of television. Just as a good program can inspire viewers to improve their lives, a bad program can spread false information and inspire people to hate and fear. I was initially drawn to television because of the potential to reach millions of viewers, but wherever there are millions of viewers there is money to be made. And wherever there is money to be made there are too often unscrupulous opportunists.

I still firmly believe that wildlife programs can be entertaining and engaging without being sensationalistic. I also believe that film and television truly can inspire people to make positive changes in their lives and in their relationships with their environment. I believe that just as surely as I did when first inspired by the immortal Fonz at the beginning of my filmmaking career. I only hope that the filmmakers of the future are not motivated by a desire to make money at any cost but are committed to take action like the Fonz and further the cause of conservation – without losing their ethics along the way.

Chris Palmer’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.