Media Narratives And Public Opinion On Animal Cruelty
Animal welfare is an issue that many people in society care about. As such, the authors of this study argue that laws regarding animal cruelty may be established in accordance with community expectations and influenced by public interest. However, public attitudes toward specific topics like animal cruelty penalties aren’t always clear.
Media coverage can be helpful to identify community expectations around animal cruelty punishments. Research suggests that the media influences the public, but the public also influences the media. Journalists need to be aware of which issues are important and worth reporting on, so they need to have a grasp on what the community is thinking. This may indicate that media coverage is a good indicator of public opinion.
Based on this assumption, this study analyzed 71 Australian news articles published between June and December 2019 that reported on the penalties handed out for animal cruelty cases. The articles specifically addressed cases that were brought under Australia’s eight territory- and state-based animal protection acts.
After conducting a thematic analysis, the authors revealed three overarching themes in the news coverage:
Animal Welfare Laws Are Not Good Enough
This theme was the most common and was expressed by statements like: “Animal bans are not enough. Many members of the community would like to see jail terms imposed for severe animal cruelty cases […]” or “ […] we don’t want this to become another case of lenient sentencing that will do nothing to deter further acts of extreme animal mistreatment.”
These articles tended to demand harsher penalties to bring cruelty sentencing in line with community expectations. Some articles that fell under this theme also highlighted the link between cruelty towards non-human animals and cruelty towards humans as a way to justify stronger punishments.
Animal Welfare Laws Are Improving
While most articles called for harsher punishments, those that fell into this theme emphasized improved laws and the intention to improve laws further down the line, showing that public interest is being taken seriously.
The authors point out two potential issues with this theme. First, news articles often focused on instances where the government increased maximum penalties. However, this is only helpful when the maximum penalties are applied to cruelty cases, which is not often the case. Additionally, reports tended to focus on what the researchers describe as the most extreme acts of animal cruelty — so even if harsher sentences are applied in court, it is often because the crime was considerably worse than usual.
Reforms Are Too Harsh / Unnecessary
Although less frequent than the other two themes, this last theme accounted for around 10% of the news articles analyzed in the study. Articles in this theme typically framed reforms as too tough and impractical. For example: “We want a rule to come in to make sure animals are protected but we want to make sure it’s practical to work with.”
These articles also tended to call for animal cruelty cases to be resolved outside of the court, claiming in many cases that animal cruelty is a result of ignorance instead of malicious intent.
The “Penalty Reform Cycle”
The authors hypothesized that a “penalty reform cycle” is occurring as a result of community expectations in Australia. The cycle looks like this:
- The public is unhappy with the penalties applied in court.
- As a result, community expectations dictate harsher penalties.
- In response to these expectations, parliament increases the maximum penalties for animal cruelty.
- Once this happens, the media reports that “laws are improving.”
- More often than not, these harsher laws are not actually applied in court, as many animal cruelty offenders do not meet the requirements needed for the maximum penalties.
- As a result, the media reports on sentencing being too “lenient.” From here, the cycle begins again.
The problem, according to the authors, is that many animal cruelty reforms in Australia are a symbolic act to appease the public, even though most cruelty cases won’t be punished to the maximum extent of the law. Activists can use this information to help break or redirect this penalty reform cycle by means of public education. Since media reports tend to focus on extreme cases, many details of the legislative process are lost, such as the fact that most animal cruelty cases are cases of negligence or a lack of knowledge rather than active cruelty. Educating the public will encourage people to seek out more effective solutions to animal cruelty that will both address the problem and prevent it from happening again.
Furthermore, the authors argue that public demand for harsher penalties — usually in the form of longer jail times — might not be the most ideal way to address many cases of criminal animal cruelty. Activists can help encourage alternative ways of responding to animal cruelty cases, for example through rehabilitation, education, and other solution-driven reforms.