Alan Rusbridger, outgoing editor of Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, recently wrote about the mainstream media’s difficulty covering the threat of climate change.
“Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror," Rusbridger wrote. "We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favour what is exceptional and in full view over what is ordinary and hidden….There may be other extraordinary and significant things happening – but they may be occurring too slowly or invisibly for the impatient tick-tock of the newsroom or to snatch the attention of a harassed reader on the way to work.”
He might have been talking about any important issue involving social change that’s “occurring slowly or invisibly”, including change in the status of animals in our culture—and the impacts that may have on everything from animal cruelty laws to our diets to our environment.
For example, in 2012 a group of prominent scientists signed something called the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, in which they expressed their support for the view that animals are conscious in the same way humans are. This may not sound like much (perhaps explaining the declaration’s lack of media coverage) but it is nevertheless historically important because it supports the recognition of animal sentience—the capacity to have positive and negative experiences, such as feeling pleasure and pain.
Human attitudes toward animals have been heavily influenced by Descartes' view that animals are merely “machines” with no consciousness or feelings whatsoever. A public statement by the distinguished neuroscientists gathering at Cambridge may appear to be just an affirmation of what many of us already believe to be self-evident, but it represents a profound departure from centuries of misguided thinking about animals.
Meanwhile, scientific evidence of animal intelligence and sentience continues to pile up. That evidence has huge implications for animal welfare and animal rights, as it poses a difficult question: How can we ethically disregard the interests of sentient beings who think and feel in ways similar to us?
Yet despite this sea change in thinking about the status of animals, much of the media has failed to notice it. How often do we see nightly news broadcasts end with footage of baby animals born in zoos, without the slightest hint that such captivity is controversial. The CBC and other major media outlets still cover rodeo as a “sport” despite the fact that virtually all animal welfare organizations deem it inhumane.
Another major (and related) societal change largely missed by mainstream media has been the rise and spread of factory farming. Sure, there have been media exposés of animal cruelty cases on farms (usually with animal activists doing the undercover investigating, not journalists) but these rarely address the institutionalized cruelty inherent in modern livestock farming. Moreover, most people are still not aware of the dire environmental impacts of industrialized animal agriculture. The United Nations says: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” But you won’t see many editorials on the subject.
Recently, the Washington Post ran a piece on the disturbing increase in the rate of growth of chickens that are selectively bred for rapid and unnatural weight gain. The story made little reference to the welfare of the chickens or the fact that they suffer from painful broken bones, lameness, and heart disease as a result of this growth. Moreover, this type of breeding has been going on since the 1950s. Now you bring it to our attention?
Meanwhile, the factory farm model has been adopted around the world, from China to Eastern Europe to South America, with billions of animals confined and denied the most basic natural behaviours and massive environmental impacts.
Mainstream media has also been slow to comprehend the growing response to factory farming by those concerned about its effects on animal welfare, the environment, or human health. For example, the Meatless Monday movement was described by one Vancouver newspaper columnist in 2013 as “the newest cockamamie scheme” despite the fact it was originated by the John Hopkins School of Public Health in 2003 and is active in 36 countries.
Fortunately, some leading media outlets, most notably the New York Times, are starting to pay serious attention to issues surrounding food, animal welfare, and factory farming. The Economist magazine recently ran a comprehensive analysis of businesses producing plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products.
But is this attention too little and too late? Maybe, but changes in journalistic practice could still make a difference. The Guardian has committed to putting climate change “front and centre” by devoting part of its home page to the issue even if “nothing exceptional” happened on this day. Perhaps that’s an approach all media should consider when important things are happening “slowly and invisibly”.