What Do Newspapers Say About Vegans?
Most people would probably agree that vegans have a mixed reputation in Western societies. People can see vegans as ascetic, holier-than-thou, and even as extremists. The authors of this study argue that society has a consistent bias against veganism, calling it “vegaphobia.” They say this bias is pervasive in mainstream media, and to prove this, the authors explored attitudes toward vegans in U.K. newspapers.
The researchers collected a sample of 397 U.K. newspaper articles that mentioned “vegan,” “vegans,” or “veganism” from 2007, and categorized these as “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral” according to their own interpretations. Most (74%) of the articles were negative, a handful (20%) were neutral, and only a small number (6%) were positive.
This overwhelmingly negative coverage could cause readers to misunderstand what it is actually like to be a vegan while distracting them from the ethical justifications for being vegan. The vast majority of these newspaper articles are telling readers that they have no need to worry about the ethics of their omnivorous diets because veganism is ridiculous: the vegan lifestyle is a fad that is ascetic and extremely difficult, and vegans themselves are oversensitive and hostile.
Presenting veganism as ascetic encourages readers to think that vegans have no fun and lead odd lives, which reassures non-vegan readers that their omnivorous diets are normal. Such media automatically assume vegan food to be bad-tasting or bland, and present tasty vegan options with surprise. Anti-vegan coverage also overlaps with sexism, such as when the media trivialize veganism as a stereotype of irrational feminine sentimentality rather than an ethical stance. Occasionally but significantly, the media portray vegans as hostile or dangerous. For example, in 2004, when prosecutors determined that a baby in the U.S. had died of starvation due to the neglect of his parents (who happened to be vegan), newspaper coverage of the case emphasized their veganism and strongly suggested this caused the child’s death.
All of this is important because the media help readers to understand issues and groups that they have no personal interaction with. For many people, news coverage of veganism may be the only exposure they get to this philosophy and way of life. The media represent huge opportunities to improve how people perceive veganism and to encourage people to reflect on the ethics of eating animals. The authors suggest vegan academics and NGOs could present themselves as “‘experts’ or consultants on veganism” and offer quotes and insights to newspaper editors and journalists. Additionally, vegans could also write letters to editors presenting their point of view, submit personal or factual essays for publication, or even consider careers in journalism to advocate against speciesism.
To find out if these advocacy methods would be effective, researchers could further explore the link between how society perceives veganism and how newspapers cover veganism: How reliant is one on the other? Will engaging with more authentic vegan perspectives cause societal change, or will this alienate readers? Are some segments of society (and therefore some types of newspaper) more open to changing mindsets on veganism than others?
Despite the strengths of this archival study, one flaw is that the authors may have exhibited bias when they interpreted the negativity of the articles. For example, the authors considered descriptions of veganism as “difficult” as “negative,” but for many people, it can genuinely be quite difficult to maintain a vegan lifestyle; discussion of this may not necessarily equate to a negative attitude toward veganism.
It is now 11 years on from the time of the newspaper articles used in this study, and things have changed. In the U.K., newspapers like The Guardian and Metro are becoming more vegan-friendly in their coverage, social media has enabled vegans to represent themselves directly, and the demographics of those reading newspapers could be changing. Updated research on how the media present veganism might be helpful for animal advocates to know whether this is still a useful area to target.