Media Bias And “Invasive” Species
The monk parakeet is a type of parrot originally from South America. These animals were introduced to Spain in 1975, and the country remains one of the top three monk parakeet importers. However, one of the consequences of the legal and illegal wild animal trade is that animals can escape or be released into the wild. As a result, Madrid has more than 10,000 wild monk parakeets. These birds were added to the Spanish Catalog of Invasive Exotic Species in 2013.
The Madrid City Council controls its monk parakeet population due to their noise, the danger posed by their large nests, potential disease transmission, and competition with local species. The Council approved the use of lethal methods to slay the parrots, including shooting, nest destruction, the use of traps and toxic products, and live capture. Note that this policy does not apply if humans can benefit from the exploitation of a non-native species; although rainbow trout are considered “invasive,” the Spanish government doesn’t call for their extermination so that fishermen can benefit from catching them.
When the monk parakeet population was investigated in another area of Spain, reports show that they cohabitated peacefully with other birds. However, the media and scientific literature do not reflect this. The authors of this study argue that media professionals play a major role in influencing public views on different issues, and they therefore have an ethical duty to responsibly represent and amplify the voices of animals. They list several ethical guidelines for covering animal issues, such as avoiding speciesist bias and reporting on the work of animal advocacy groups.
To understand how the media shapes narratives about so-called “invasive” animals, this study examined the media’s representation of monk parakeets in Madrid between 2015-2021. The authors analyzed six major print and online Spanish newspapers spanning both ends of the political spectrum. A final sample of 64 texts were chosen for analysis. They were especially interested in understanding how these media outlets framed the issue of monk parakeets in Madrid, which management solutions were presented (and who was described as responsible), and which organizational views were represented in the content.
The results showed that local newspapers presented the monk parakeets in Madrid as problematic due to their invasive status, the noise they create, the risk of nest falls, and disease transmission. The language used to refer to the birds included words like “exotic,” “invaders,” “pests,” “demons,” and “threats.” Sentiment analysis confirmed that negatively-charged words were nearly six times more common than positively-charged words when describing the birds.
Describing animals as invaders or pests implies human supremacy, creates a sense of otherness, and justifies their persecution. While the press presented four main management solutions to manage the monk parakeet population, 42% of the articles focused on exterminating them. Alternatively, non-lethal management strategies supported by animal advocates were largely omitted. Only one article in the sample covered the Spanish Federation for Animal Protection, which is campaigning against the slaughter of monk parakeets in Madrid. The media also failed to mention the role that humans have played in creating the displaced species, namely the wild animal trade and its ongoing existence.
Most newspapers said the Madrid City Council was responsible for managing the parakeets, with a few articles attributing the job to other political powers, Spanish Ministries, and in several instances, scientists and conservationists. Animal protection groups were largely ignored as actors in the issue, and when newspapers mentioned public opposition to killing the parakeets, they described these people and their efforts as sensitive, well-meaning, but ineffective.
Although this case study focuses on one animal species in Madrid, there are several advocacy takeaways to consider. For one thing, it’s important to consider the root cause of the spread of non-native animals. In this case, the authors suggest addressing the trade in monk parakeets, which counteracts any attempts to control their population. It’s also critical for animal advocates to put pressure on the media to do their due diligence when covering wild animal conflicts. This includes changing the way they name and describe displaced animal species and giving fair and equal coverage to alternative, pro-animal viewpoints.
Journalists hold a privileged position as influencers in society, and only by holding them accountable can we begin to change the narrative about non-native species and find humane solutions that benefit humans and animals.