Tom French is the type of person who wants to know what it is like to be on a plane with elephants. He’s also the type to give an “F” to his students for one little mistake, as well as immerse himself in the jungles of Panama to chase after a story. That’s because the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist knows what it takes to make it in the field of journalism.
Recently finished with his book “Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives,” an insight into the details of the history of Lowry Park Zoo and a study of the animals held within, French, once a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, shared his experiences with the University of Massachusetts journalism department and the audience that accompanied him Tuesday night.
French began his talk with several ideas that he has gathered over his career, spanning from thoughts on journalism to the essence of human nature in relation to animal instinct. French admitted he had somewhat of an animal problem as a child, and he wasn’t quite sure how to handle the story, which first began as a series of articles.
French said he went in hoping to focus his article on the zookeepers, but that, over time, his mind changed. He stressed that an important lesson in journalism is that handling a story may change as a reporter witnesses new information.
“I just wondered what it would be like on a plane with 11 elephants,” he said, referring to the aerial transportation of elephants.
He continued with how certain observations led him to question human nature, and how this human nature can be controlling against nature, which should not necessarily be controlled.
“Nature doesn’t care about our ideology, doesn’t care about feminism, doesn’t care about morality, about progress,” he said.
“It’s really fun to write about [nature]. Nature cares about survival,” French added.
He provided several examples of human control, specifically expanding on the story of an ape that was taken in and raised as a human by a family. These teachings became so ingrained in the ape, and when it was eventually delivered to the zoo, the ape didn’t have any idea it was an animal, considering itself to be human. The male ape disregarded the female apes in the compound with it, a sign that it did not understand how to relate or identify with its own species.
“There’s one problem. Anybody, what’s the problem?” he asked the crowd of the lesson to be gathered from his ape anecdote.
“He’s not human,” French explained.
French also explained how zoos are simply artificial prisons for animals, man-made and meant to appeal to the eyes of humans. He explained that false additional touches will be made including “Fake bird-droppings” and “artificial mineral satins on the waterfalls,” and that anything “real,” like planted trees, were surrounded by electrical fences to prevent the animals from interacting with them.
The Pulitzer recipient also said the best journalism can come from reporters who are truly immersed within their subject. According to French, his experience changed his perception of the human race, and in turn, affected some approaches to his reporting.
“Then when I found that I was focusing my attention back to the humans, I was looking at us really differently,” he said. “I was looking at us in species terms … and I was seeing things that were blowing my mind.”
In a luncheon prior to the talk, French spoke with several journalism department professors and invited students. He talked about what skills and sacrifices life as a journalist may request and what one can do to make it in the field.
“I think what matters the most is persistence, tenacity and the willingness to get it done,” he said.
Now a professor at Indiana University, French spoke of how he fails papers from students that have one fact wrong or one misspelled name, because those kinds of mistakes would not be considered acceptable to any editor during a time when job position to applicant ratios are very low, he said.
French also shared a few stories of his former students, including one young woman who wasn’t hired by a paper because her shorts were revealing, and another lady who woke up from a car accident in the hospital and immediately wanted to continue her reporting.
French also gave some basic advice.
“Don’t call yourself a writer; call yourself a reporter in the newsroom,” he said.
“Also, the most important thing in interviewing is to just listen,” he added in response to a question about how to interview sources.
He also stressed the importance of being able to write on deadline and how completing internships puts prospective journalists in a better position for hire.
French’s previous accomplishments include a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece titled “Angels and Demons,” an account of the murders of Jo, Michelle and Christie Rogers and the capture of their murderer, as well as “13,” a six-part series published in the St. Petersburg Times that gave insight into the lives of several middle school students in Tampa Fla.
Tim Jones can be reached at [email protected]