How The U.K. And U.S. Media Cover Animal Ag’s Impact On Climate
The consumption of meat is growing worldwide, even though we now know that greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture are as high as in the transportation sector. Some argue that public awareness of this issue is low, and so people don’t connect their consumption as a contributor to climate change. Others argue that knowing about this link is not enough to convince the public to reduce meat consumption, because cultural norms and structural barriers also weigh on people’s decisions.
However, being aware of a contributor to a problem is the first step to then be able to act on it. To encourage reducing meat consumption, the public has to be made aware of the efficacy that dietary changes have on climate change. Traditional media can play a role by covering and shaping public interest and knowledge about the issue.
This study focused on analyzing the volume of coverage in U.K. and U.S. “elite” media (The Guardian, the Telegraph, the New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal) of animal agriculture’s negative impact on the climate, and set out to determine which causes, “responsible agents,” and solutions are discussed in online and print articles, from 2006 to 2018. The research questions that the authors tried to answer were as follows: “how did volume coverage evolve over time? Were there significant differences between the U.S. and U.K., and between right-leaning and left-leaning media organizations?”; “which causes (seen as the processes which lead to GHG emissions) were most mentioned?”; “which sectors were mentioned the most in terms of being responsible for creating the demand for, or supply of, animal agriculture products?”; and “which solutions to reducing GHGs from animal agriculture were most mentioned?”
The U.S. and U.K. were chosen since both have high greenhouse gas emissions per capita, are influential players in international climate change discussions, and have media outlets that influence a national and international audience.
To answer their questions, researchers conducted a quantitative media content analysis, focusing on articles mentioning terms such as animal agriculture and related to it (such as “meat”, “cows”, “vegan”, “vegetarian”, “livestock”), and the term climate change (or “global warming”). After excluding articles based on certain criteria or by irrelevance or repeats, the authors arrived at a sample of 188 articles: 27 from the New York Times, 7 from the Wall Street Journal, 113 from The Guardian, and 41 from The Telegraph.
The results showed that the volume of coverage remained low both in the U.S. and the U.K. There was a difference in the volume of coverage between left-wing (The Guardian and New York Times with a total of 140 articles) and right-wing leaning media (The Telegraph and Wall Street Journal with 48 articles in total), explained by climate change being politicized and seen as a left-wing issue, since climate skepticism is common in both countries. The apparent historical reluctance of governments, politicians, and environmental NGOs to advocate on the issue of animal agriculture’s emissions contributed to these low numbers, because the authors say it was a missed opportunity to be quoted by the media.
The most mentioned cause of climate change from animal agriculture was greenhouse gas emissions, in particular methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, from cows and other ruminants’ digestive processes. Other causes from animal agriculture were mentioned less, including growing feed crops, use of fertilizers, manure and slurry, land use, and emissions from supply chains and distribution. Causes such as growing demand for meat in many countries, human diets, and population growth were mentioned even less.
Several agents were mentioned in the articles as responsible for emissions in the animal agriculture sector, namely businesses, consumers, supermarkets, farmers, factory farms, campaign/interest groups, and governments or regulators. Overall, consumers were the most mentioned, twice as much as factory farms. Farmers were third in the ranking of mentions, followed by businesses. Campaign/interest groups, governments, regulators, and supermarkets were hardly ever mentioned. The Telegraph was the one that named consumers as the responsible actor the most (in 44% of its articles), while the New York Times and The Guardian mentioned consumers relatively less (in 19% and 21% of their articles, respectively). Business and factory farms were mentioned the most by the New York Times (41% of its articles), whereas The Guardian and The Telegraph mentioned them relatively less (17% and 7% of their articles, respectively). Wall Street Journal did not mention responsible agents.
Different type of solutions to animal agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions were mentioned, such as consumer behavior change (which included reductions in meat consumption, veganism, vegetarianism, and eating animal products with lower footprint), changes to agricultural practice (such as grass-fed cattle and animal breeding with genetic modification that reduced belching and farting), government policy or regulatory changes (such as new dietary guidelines, ending animal subsidies or taxing meat) and, finally, alternative protein sources (namely, insects, plant-based alternatives and “cellular” meat). The most prominent of the solutions was changes in consumer behavior, whereas changes to agricultural methods or regulation and tax had fewer mentions. Alternative protein sources hardly featured in this sample as part of a solution, regardless of recent media and investment interest.
For animal advocates, this study shows that the U.K. and U.S. elite media hardly cover animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change. This may be a reason for the low public awareness of the issue and the low level of importance the public assigns to it, although when the topic is covered, most of the focus seems to be on individual consumer behavior. Animal advocates considering this should remember to not take their focus off the necessary systemic changes that governments and corporations should be undergoing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the animal agriculture industry.
Faunalytics’ Caryn Ginsberg has created a handy infographic to help explain the findings of this study, which you can view below (click / tap the photo for a full-resolution version).