Negative Media Events & Public Attitudes Towards Animal Welfare
Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of farmed animals, and several public media campaigns have called for bans on live exporting. Previous research in Australia and the United States indicates that negative media coverage of animal welfare abuses increases ethical consumption levels and improves farm animal welfare. Despite these findings, there has been no appreciable decline in Australia’s live export industry over the past number of years.
In 2018, popular television program 60 Minutes aired whistleblower footage of sheep on an Australian live export ship. The footage revealed high temperatures and humidity aboard the ship, and shows animals panting and exhibiting signs of heat stress. This particular voyage resulted in a 3.76% mortality rate, well above the 2% threshold which must be reported to the Australian government. The program was seen by approximately 630,000 viewers. After the program aired, there was wide coverage in print media, radio, television, and resulted in corresponding social media activity.
Before (n = 278) and after (n = 224) the media coverage, participants were interviewed to determine the effect of the media campaign on their views of the live exporting industry. The questionnaire used to interview participants covered demographic information, attitudes towards animal welfare, knowledge of farmed animals and farmed animal welfare, attitudes towards red meat farming practices, and behavior related to farm animal welfare. Participants were recruited randomly through landline and mobile phone numbers throughout Australia.
The authors found no significant difference in the eating habits of respondents before and after the program aired. They found no significant differences in participants’ understanding of animal welfare, concern about sheep or beef cow welfare, or the acceptability of animal uses. They also found no significant differences in participants’ beliefs surrounding their perceived or actual knowledge of farming practices, attitudes towards red meat farming practices, or trust in farmers of animals for their meat. The authors did find significant differences in participants’ attitudes towards sheep comfort during live exporting, as well as increases in community discussion and social media activity relating to the issue.
The authors concluded that, despite wide media coverage, there was little effect on the Australian public’s attitudes towards the red meat industry. However, the authors cited prior research showing that negative media campaigns can result in action by government officials despite a lack of change in public perception. They further cited research indicating that the cumulative effect of negative media events may result in broad changes in attitude, though individual events may have incremental or negligible effects, as was observed in this study.