An Examination of the Representation of Bullfighting in U.K. Newspapers
Bullfighting takes place in various formats all over the world, but most regularly in Europe and South America. 89% of the British public would not visit a bullfight when on a holiday, and 76% say that it is wrong for the tourist industry to promote bullfighting in any way. Yet there often seems to be a flippant attitude from the U.K. media when they publish articles related to bullfights and festivals, such as the infamous running of the bulls in Pamplona.
On 28th July 2010, the anti-bullfighting community around the world declared a huge victory for the animal protection movement. The Catalonian parliament voted to ban bullfighting in the region as a result of a petition signed by over 180,000 people who claimed the practice is barbaric and outdated. The ban, which came into effect on 1st January 2012, ended many years of the traditional “sport” in the area.
People on both sides of the debate saw 2010 as a critical year for the future of bullfighting in Spain, with the Catalan Parliament’s decision receiving international coverage in the run up to and aftermath of the vote. The end to bullfighting in this region of Spain was thought to have the potential to set a precedent around the world, and the pro and anti-bullfighting communities were watching with interest. Strategies for U.K.-based animal advocates involved “making bullfighting a British issue.” But how did the U.K. media fit into this plan and did they toe the animal welfare line?
Through the content analysis of bullfighting articles published across nine U.K. national newspapers during 2010, I carried out research to examine the approach and views of journalist output. In a country considered to be “a nation of animal lovers” and where bullfighting events do not actually take place, it would seem an easy arena for animal advocates to get their message across about the cruelty of bullfighting. But how did U.K. newspaper coverage respond when faced with conflicting cultural and animal welfare considerations?
It has been noted that “the bullfight is not simply a traditional performance; it is but [it is] also big business.”  And this big business has the backing of public money, a strong cultural status, and is currently the norm. There is a feeling that journalistic practice tends to favor keeping the status quo  and opposition to this – such as advocates seeking reform – is often considered extremist or radical, resulting in alternative views and perspectives being overlooked. This means that advocates campaigning for an end to bullfighting are up against a potentially unsympathetic media, as well as embedded tradition and convention.
The newspaper coverage of bullfighting was examined over a total of 10 months during 2010 (articles published during the month of the ban were not studied, as the increased media coverage of the vote and its impacts were atypical reports unlikely to show whether bias exists generally on the issue.) Articles that included the word “bullfighting” from the following national daily papers were analyzed: the Daily Express; the Daily Mail; the Daily Mirror; the Daily Telegraph; the Financial Times; The Guardian; The Independent; The Times, and the Sun.
Only 35% of the articles examined that mentioned bullfighting were specifically regarding the “sport” and not just making a brief reference to it. The most common passing mentions were found in articles relating to the arts, travel, and sports. The many references to “bullfighting” in articles written about a variety of other topics shows how the culture and imagery of the practice is deeply engrained in society, even within countries where bullfighting does not take place. However, recognition of the traditional symbolism contained within the activity is not something most animal advocates are seeking to end – it is the act of bullfighting itself – so this wide-ranging reference across different genres of stories does not necessarily reflect badly upon the effectiveness of advocate campaigning.
The findings show that The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, The Times, and the Daily Mirror newspapers published articles specifically relating to bullfighting most frequently throughout the months studied. There were peaks of increased coverage and periods of no reports during certain months of the year, but on average there tended to be around two bullfighting articles published each month across all newspapers. However, it should be remembered that these numbers are likely to have been far fewer if the vote on the continuance of bullfighting in Catalonia had not taken place in the same year. While it cannot be stated that it was the only reason for stories relating to bullfighting to have been published, many of the articles printed made reference to the ban or the proposed ban in the text.
Generally, there appears to be a bias in the reporting of bullfighting issues in favor of the “sport,” when looking at the newspaper coverage as a whole. However, certain national newspapers provided very few stories for effective comparison during the ten months of analysis, such as the Daily Express and the Financial Times. The Guardian showed a distinct preference towards reporting the status quo in bullfighting without making reference to anti-bullfighting sentiment or welfare messages. The Daily Mirror demonstrated a lean towards promotion of anti-bullfighting reports.
The pro-bullfighting sway of some newspapers was particularly visible in the examination of the articles’ primary sources. There were many more articles (43%) that used people supportive of bullfighting as their sources. This indicates that those in favor of the “sport” are potentially setting the agenda and framing the story that follows. Advocates campaigning against bullfighting had poor evidence of successfully promoting themselves as primary sources – 27% of articles could be considered to be defined by an anti-bullfighting source. This points towards the assumption that advocates campaigning for an end to bullfighting are not successfully influencing journalists or initiating themselves as the sources for stories to encourage coverage of anti-bullfighting issues.
More articles were classified as giving only a pro-bullfighting perspective (30%) than those which presented only anti-bullfighting views (22%). This is likely to be because bullfighting has not been banned in many places, and so the continuance of events involving bulls may not be automatically questioned by the media, and therefore the anti-bullfighting perspective would not be included. While it is appreciated that it may not always be appropriate for journalists to examine the wider issue of bullfighting every time an article is written, the findings do lean towards the notion that the mainstream media tends to generally favor keeping the status quo.
The lack of representation from animal advocates might be due to the rationale for writing the stories – more than twice as many articles were written because of a bullfight taking place compared to anti-bullfighting protests. The articles regarding the anti-bullfighting protests all related to three separate events. This does not sounds like many protests given the regularity of bullfights, but it has been noted that traditional protests are becoming less frequent over recent years with advocates relying more on new media campaigns to rally and show support for a cause.  While these newer methods of campaigning can be useful ways of raising support and funds from the public, they may be less likely to receive newspaper coverage.
Analysis to see whether the newspapers displayed any difference in reporting style after the mid-year vote to ban bullfighting in Catalonia showed that after July there was a distinct lack of pro-bullfighting primary sources in stories and fewer articles which offered only pro-bullfighting perspectives. While this is not definitive, it indicates that the style of reporting may have altered as a result of the vote in favor of a ban.
The language some journalists used when writing about bullfighting was noteworthy. Some wrote in a comic fashion, almost making fun of the bull, for example one was described as “a slaveringly piqued slab of beef.”  Very few pieces made reference to cruelty or the suffering of the bulls, though it was not totally overlooked in all stories. There were frequent references to aggression and the brutish nature of bulls, which might be seen as inevitable given the nature of the “sport.” Disappointingly for animal advocates, this wasn’t balanced with the mention that animals including bulls are known to show sentience.
It has been observed that “when animals are perceived as lacking cognition and emotion, they are seen as morally inferior and consequently assumed to be appropriate objects for exploitation and mistreatment.”  This shows that in the eyes of those who are lobbying for an animal protection cause, use of language must be precise. Advocates campaigning on the issue would want to influence such articles to include sympathetic language more favorable to their cause.
Even in a country like the U.K., that is considered progressive in terms of animal welfare, advocates cannot assume they have the support of newspapers or the public. Those of us fighting the cause of animals may need to clarify our messaging and actively target the media. This study shows that even if progress is being made within society in relation to animal issues, we cannot assume that journalists are on our side – we need to lobby effectively so that we can shape and influence media output.
 Pink, Sarah (2003) “She Wasn’t Tall Enough and Breasts Get in the Way’: Why Would a Woman Bullfighter Retire?” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, October-December 2003, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp.427-449.
 Bowman, Leo (2006) “Reformulating ‘Objectivity’”, Journalism Studies, August 2006, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp.628-643.
 KnowHow NonProfit website “New Media Campaigning” http://www.knowhownonprofit.org/campaigns/campaigning/about-campaigning-and-lobbying/newmedia/new-media-campaigning accessed on 17th December, 2010.
 The Guardian, ‘Sport: The fleeing bullfighter who saw sense,’ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/jun/16/fleeing-bullfighter-who-saw-sense
 Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (2003) “Linguistic Deception: Effects of Language Use on Interactions with Nonhuman Animals”, Ethics and Behavior, Vol. 13(2), pp.203-207.