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Why The Media (Usually) Ignores Animal Rights
Credibility concerns, cognitive biases, and corporate influence prevent significant coverage of animal issues. Here’s how we can overcome those blocks.
In November of 2017, we had what we thought was a blockbuster story. One of the largest turkey farms in the nation was not only deceiving the public by marketing its turkey as free range. We had concrete, documentary evidence showing that penicillin, an important antibiotic to treat human disease, was being regularly given to all the animals via their water. That finding, along with images of animals with massive open sores on their bodies, was enough to convince The Guardian, one of the most important newspapers in the world, to promise us featured coverage around Thanksgiving.
Then, on the Friday before the piece was to be published, I got a phone call. The piece was dead.
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“We’re not going to be able to publish,” the reporter told me.
“Is there anything we can do to change that? Can we provide additional documentation?” I said.
“No, we just can’t get it over the line.”
I was never told what that “line” was. The reporter said she did not have time to discuss further and hung up the phone.
This was just one of many instances of major media outlets dropping stories about animal rights. But even worse than the stories that are dropped are the stories that never get attention in the first place. Perhaps the most important example, in my experience, was a story we pitched in 2016 about the lack of enforcement of California’s Prop 2, arguably the most important animal welfare legislation in American history. We had undertaken an investigation of egg farms in the state, showing that many were still confining birds in cages, despite Prop 2’s promise of a cage-free California. We had documents obtained via the state open records law, showing that state inspectors found many facilities were violating the law, by confining birds in less than 116 square inches each. And we had reached out to every state or local law enforcement agency and were not able to convince anyone in government to investigate, much less hold accountable, the companies at issue.
We published a report and made this video with our findings.
It seemed like an obviously important story. Prop 2 had passed with more votes than any ballot initiative in California history. It had garnered media attention in the most important publications in the nation, such as The New York Times. And yet when we reached out to media outlets to cover the story – even those that had given the original ballot initiative significant attention – we got essentially no reply. I was perplexed.
How could we possibly educate the public about the crimes committed by factory farms when all the largest media outlets were ignoring the issue?
In the last 5 years, I have pitched perhaps three dozen similar stories about animal rights to journalists across the nation: TV, newspaper, even podcasts and YouTube. I have also had success in doing so, with stories we’ve pitched achieving positive national attention on multiple occasions. And while I continue to believe that the media is giving the animal rights movement short shrift, I also now have a deeper understanding of why that is the case. And that understanding, if I had it in 2017 with respect to our turkey investigation, or in 2016 with respect to our Prop 2 investigation, might have led to a different outcome. Three things, in particular, are key: the credibility of the people making the pitch, cognitive biases against veganism, and corporate influence on what the media writes (and doesn’t write).
The first factor, credibility, is one that animal rights activists routinely ignore because we are stuck in our own bubble; we don’t realize that journalists often don’t trust the statements we make. In everything from the words we use, to the tone with which we use them, we do things when talking to journalists that undermine our chances of getting the word out. For example, many of my early pitches to journalists were littered with emotionally-laden language: “shocking,” “horrific,” “abusive.” But in conversations I had with journalists behind the scenes – including a Bloomberg reporter whose editor forced her to kill a story we were writing about corruption in the dairy industry – this language was seen as unhelpful.
“No one wants to be a servant to a group’s propaganda,” she told me. “You have to make the case based on the facts.”
I am not going to pretend that journalism is objective. It’s not. But journalism that’s good cannot be seen as propagandistic, even if it has an element of opinion. And too often animal rights activists focus entirely on their opinions, and not enough on the facts. This relates to a mantra of good writing: show, don’t tell. If the images or video we are describing are shocking or horrific, describe what they show, and let them stand for themselves. Instead of describing an investigation as “shocking,” for example, it’s probably more effective to state the specific facts that we believe to be shocking. “Animals were mass dosed with antibiotics, contrary to industry commitments, and were often covered with open sores.” That is a better sentence than “animals are facing shocking abuse.”
There are two other things to say about credibility. The first is that credibility is often affected as much by who is making the pitch, as what the pitch says. It was probably very important, in DxE’s early history, that I am a former law professor at an elite university. I wish that were not the case, but multiple journalists, including the first Wall Street Journal reporter we worked with, indicated that this was important to her editors. (She even included this biographical details in the story she eventually published on the case.) Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is even more important than I previously thought, as appeal to authority (while logically fallacious in many cases) is an easy way for a reporter to publish something, and not worry too much about whether it’s wrong. We should always try to find “credible” people (which is different from famous people) to make the pitch for us, or at least support us in our pitch.
The second is that credibility is affected by the other things we do, and so we should care a lot about our reputation for seriousness and integrity. The same Bloomberg journalist, whose story about dairy was killed, shared that a prior DxE action, where one our activists had impersonated a CEO of Smithfield in an interview on Fox Business, probably affected her editors’ perception of our story. That does not mean someone should not be impersonating Smithfield on Fox Business. But it does mean that anyone who does so, should not also be pitching a similar story to Bloomberg News. (Indeed, I might go further and say it shouldn’t even be the same organization.)
The second factor in the media’s reluctance to cover animal issues is cognitive dissonance avoidance. When I was attempting to pitch the Smithfield prosecution to a journalist at a major national paper, I remember him coming back to me and giving me frank advice. “You have to realize that the editors who are making the calls here are old, white men who eat lots of bacon.”
He suggested that we remove any sentimental discussions of the two piglets at issue, and that we focus on the aspects of the case that would not antagonize someone who loved eating pork. I am still not convinced by the first suggestion. The Dodo, which focuses almost entirely on individual animal rescues, is one of the most dominant platforms on social media. And, even if animal rescues are not considered “serious journalism,” it seems the only way to overcome that bias is to get serious journalists to write about animal rescues! But the second one is a very sound one. Every pitch we write has to find an angle that doesn’t make the average reader of a newspaper feel bad. They are, after all, the ones who pay the bills for a typical media outlet to keep operating.
How do we do that without compromising the impact of our story? Quite simply, focus on systemic angles, rather than blaming consumers for what’s happening. The Smithfield prosecution gave us this powerful angle. Instead of talking about how bad consumers are, for eating pork, we shifted our pitch to focus on systemic corruption and abuse of power: notably, the industry’s ability to influence the government and bring prosecutions that were as bizarre as they were unprecedented. That story, in turn, became one of the biggest stories in animal rights history. Glenn Greenwald’s first report on the prosecution was shared over 130,000 times on Facebook alone, and was one of the most read articles in Glenn’s history as a journalist. (And Glenn is a Pulitzer Prize winner who broke the Edward Snowden/NSA leak story!) It generated even more headlines when we were acquitted a few weeks ago, including my first op-ed in The New York Times.
While we did not target consumers directly, moreover, there is inevitably discussion of consumer choices. Check out the comments to the op-ed, as a demonstration of this effect.
The third and final factor preventing media around animal rights is corporate influence. Some of the largest animal abusers in the world also happen to be major sponsors of corporate media. This includes pharmaceutical companies that test on animals, and retail companies like Costco or McDonald’s that sell animal flesh to consumers. (One report shows retail as the biggest spender in television ads, while pharma is number 4.) While it is difficult to prove, I strongly suspect corporate influence has killed some of the most important stories for animal rights.
Consider our first exposé at DxE, of a Whole Foods egg farm. Just weeks before the release of our investigation, Whole Foods announced a massive ad buy with the theme, “Integrity Matters.” It should not surprise you that some of the outlets that were the biggest participants in that advertising campaign caused us the biggest headaches in trying to get an accurate story out. Another example is the Washington Post. While the Post, which is among the most important newspapers in the world, covered us extensively in our investigations of Whole Foods and Costco, we suddenly hit a brick wall with them once we began targeting Amazon, which acquired Whole Foods in 2017. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post in 2013, and was one of the individuals we protested regarding false advertising about “humane” conditions at factory farms. It’s impossible to say why exactly the coverage ended, but I can imagine an editor thinking to themselves, “Is going after my boss, Jeff Bezos, the best thing for my career?” The Post has not written a single positive story about DxE since DxE’s Amazon campaign began in late 2017.
There is not much we can do, directly, about corporate influence. But it does mean that seeking out independent media sources is key. It should come as no surprise that some of the best coverage of animal rights has come from non-corporate media outlets such as The Intercept, Current Affairs, and The Guardian. The good thing is that the media, in general, appears to be shifting towards independent sources. There will be more opportunities to reach out to podcasts, YouTube channels, and other non-corporate outlets in the future. We should take advantage of this opportunity.
Establishing credibility, making pitches that don’t provoke cognitive biases, and navigating the perils of corporate influence are all crucial ways to overcome what some have described as a media blackout of animal issues. But there’s another key element that may be more important than all these others: telling great stories. The Smithfield trial is an example. The trial was filled with all the dramatic elements of a good story: unique characters, terrifying challenges, and hard choices. And so it is not surprising that it was one of the few animal stories that broke through into the mainstream media.
This is, in fact, one of the most important parts of both direct action, and civil disobedience. They serve as a natural and powerful structure for storytelling. There’s a reason there’s so much public attention on trials, or even TV shows about crime or courtroom dramas. They’re simply good stories.
I hope, when people read this, they don’t imagine that one can simply go out there and break the law, or rescue an animal, and expect coverage in The New York Times. It still takes great skill, experience, and probably a bit of luck to break through into the mainstream. But what we should understand is that risk is a necessary, if not sufficient, element of garnering media attention.
It is one of the many reasons the animal rights movement, like all effective movements, needs direct action.
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