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To save or kill a baby polar bear

AFP via Getty Images

When is it a good thing to be provocative? Today we respond to a listener's critique of an analogy that compares central bankers' raising interest rates to Berlin zookeepers' decision whether to kill Knut the baby polar bear. If nothing else, it was memorable. But is that enough?

In journalism, being provocative for the sake of being provocative is mere attention-getting. Being provocative on issues where the heat is already high in the public debate is counterproductive, because it has the same effect as throwing gasoline on a fire.

Yet, there is room for language that is deliberately designed to stop news consumers in their tracks. The best time and place for provocation is when the subject matter is important but dull or abstract. Journalists who frequently deal with hard-to-grasp topics are most successful when they land an unforgettable metaphor that conveys both meaning and emotion.

As it turns out, the Berlin zookeepers didn't kill Knut, even though he had a disordered immune system and his mother rejected him. They were influenced by an overwhelming public outcry to keep the bear alive. The folks who first thought of this metaphor were hoping to generate a similar outcry over government bankers' efforts to slow inflation, which will inevitably harm the economy.

Read on to see if we thought it was a strong enough metaphor to lead off an episode of The Indicator from Planet Money.

We also spotlight two stories: the first about the concept of the American dream, which blends photos and words to tell the story of immigrants' struggles to make it into the United States, and the second an interview that looked into the life of a longtime Supreme Court artist.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

An insensitive comparison?

Ashley Hillard wrote on Sept. 23: I am a regular listener of this show, but I found this latest episode's comparison of finance to whether or not a zoo in Berlin would kill a baby polar bear to be unbelievably crass. I actually had to turn off the story. I know animal metaphors are big in economics, but this one just really went too far. ...

In the referenced episode of The Indicator from Planet Money, co-host Darian Woods told the podcast audience about a baby polar bear named Knut born in the Berlin Zoo in 2006. Knut was rejected by his mother and needed 24-hour care and bottle-feeding to live. The bear also had an autoimmune disorder. A zookeeper said the bear should be euthanized. Co-host Wailin Wong told listeners that Knut was ultimately spared after protests and a media frenzy.

Wong pivoted, "there's a real point about economics to be made here."

Woods then told listeners about two economists at the investment company BlackRock who "are calling for a similar, loud public debate over whether to keep another baby polar bear alive. The baby polar bear in this metaphor is the economy."

The economists, Jean Boivin and Alex Brazier, wrote a Sept. 14 blog post titled "Spare the bear: the inflation debate that should be happening," which is where The Indicator found the Knut comparison.

Wong further explained the dilemma for central bankers: "Do they keep the economy booming but risk inflation spiraling higher and higher? Or do they snuff out inflation now and suffocate the economy, too? In other words, do they kill the polar bear?"

We asked The Indicator team about their decision to use Knut's story as a metaphor for the economy. In an email, senior supervising editor Kate Concannon said her team wanted to call attention to the notable actions that the U.S. Federal Reserve is taking in response to inflation, which hit 40-year highs.

"Economists are forecasting millions of people may lose their jobs in response to the Fed raising interest rates," she said. "There was a loud public debate about whether Knut the polar bear should be euthanized. Yet so far the scale of the Fed's response to the inflation mess we find ourselves in has not been the subject of widespread public debate. We are asking whether the speed of the Fed's actions should have just as much — if not more — discussion, given what's at stake."

Did comparing the economy to Knut the polar bear make this abstract subject more accessible to the NPR audience? Concannon said yes: "Analogies and striking images are useful to make the scale of the current economic quandary more real to our listeners."

In response to the idea that the comparison was crass, Concannon said she recognized that Knut's situation was tragic, but so is the current situation that may await many American workers. In fact, other newsrooms made use of the comparison.

"The cliché goes that one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic," she said. "We want to help our listeners feel the fortunes of the millions as just as compelling and gripping as the fate of one polar bear."

In our view, the metaphor worked. Far from being insensitive, we found it to be a memorable, even helpful tool, for listeners seeking to understand the gravity of the current economic landscape. — Amaris Castillo


The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

The 'American dream'

Last month, NPR published a beautiful exploration of what the idea of the American dream means to today's migrants. It was featured in a recent newsletter from NPR's Pablo Valdivia as part of a reflection on Hispanic Heritage Month. The story is available to read in English and Spanish. Many immigration stories of late have been about the politicization of migration, but this story offered more personal looks at the people trying to make their way into the U.S. Lilly Quiroz's first-person introduction and Toya Sarno Jordan's photos draw readers into the difficult and dramatic journeys of those featured in the reporting. — Emily Barske

A Supreme Court artist's life

Art Lien, one of the most celebrated courtroom artists in the U.S., spoke with NPR's Scott Simon for Weekend Edition Saturday . Lien spent 45 years sketching Supreme Court hearings before retiring this summer. Simon asked Lien who at the Supreme Court had an especially difficult face to capture, and what he really feels about whether cameras should be in the courtroom. We won't give away Lien's answers here, but they're fascinating. It's a delightful and revelatory conversation that uncovers the curiosities of life as a Supreme Court artist. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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