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‘An Angry Cow Is Not A Good Eating Experience’: How global media are shifting from ‘crude’ to ‘camouflaged’ speciesism

Speciesism is mutating. It is inherently unstable because it is built on indefensible prejudice. To survive the constant influx of new challenges that threaten to expose it, speciesism employs changing techniques. It involves strategies of emotional reassurance and comfort such as 'bait-and-switch' that assume an inherently cruelty-free place, where nonhumans are in control of their lives, but we can still exploit and kill them without feeling guilty. But the place where 'cows are happy and food is healthy,' is only a picture on the cover. Once we open the book, we are reassured that humans will continue to be speciesist and that carnism is not going away because the cows are the food.

NATALIE KHAZAAL: When it comes to the treatment of nonhuman animals used for food (NUF), do global media like The New York Times coddle their readership with human-centered narratives or do they provide a neutral point to view? Do global media uphold ideologies that render oppression invisible or challenge them, making oppression apparent? The question whether NUF are oppressed is empirical, not discursive. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in 2011 around 70 billion land animals were slaughtered worldwide for human food (excluding the 150 billion aquatic animals captured in oceans or grown in aquaculture facilities).

As this indicates, the animal farming industry breeds, fattens and sustains billions of animals for their meat, milk and eggs. Nowadays, the live farmed-animal population is nearly four times the size of the world’s human population. The vast majority of these nonhumans are reared in intense factory farm systems. Many suffer greatly in transport and on farms, where they are caged and crammed, selectively bred, genetically manipulated to grow abnormally fast and pushed to their physical limits in the quest to increase meat, milk or egg production.

The FAO estimates that 80 percent of today’s growth in animal agriculture comes from industrial production systems, showing the intense degree to which nonhuman bodies and lives are cloned and manipulated, down to the genetic level via science and technology. Supported by state institutions — traditionally subsidized, and recently protected by a wave of “eco-terrorism” and whistleblower suppression laws in the United States and Europe — animal farming aims at “absolute maximization of profit without hindrance” and “routinely causes animals massive harm in the form of suffering, confinement and death”.

Agribusiness is driven by profit and productivity, not motivation for animal well-being, which has resulted in denying scientific evidence about the mental states of nonhumans and their experiences of pain. By sheer numbers of affected nonhumans, factory farming is the largest animal welfare concern in the world and the reason why over the past 30 years, more and more activists, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and scholars have rejected the right of humans to confine, exploit, shorten the lifespan, genetically modify, mutilate, and cause systematic physical and psychological pain to billions of nonhumans.

Western philosophers pioneered a critical ethical reassessment of these practices, while psychologists and sociologists only recently started to explore how we block our empathy for nonhumans by “denial, routinization, justification, objectification, de- individualization, dichotomization, rationalization and dissociation”. This mechanism of emotional numbing is a psychological process shaped by dominant ideological assumptions rooted in the long genealogies of all societies since the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago.

The media are among the top disseminators of such assumptions. Ethicist Peter Singer pinpointed this fact in 1975, stating that media “coverage of nonhuman animals is dominated by human-interest events like baby gorilla births at a zoo … but developments in farming techniques that deprive millions of animals freedom of movement go unreported”.

This study focuses on how global media reflect the ways in which we envision NUF and their treatment. We do so by comparing language and discourse in El País (EP) and The New York Times (NYT), two newspapers of record whose editorial and news-gathering routines are considered an authoritative and professional reference for the Spanish- and English-language markets…

By comparing newspapers from two different countries, we were able to see how speciesism changes across cultures. Our efforts have been rewarding in three ways. First, our findings confirm that… conclusions about speciesism in the media are still valid, not just in their original environment but also outside the United States. Analyzing the EP and NYT samples shows that language discourse maintains and reproduces nonhuman oppression by perpetuating speciesism through a series of strategies like commodifying nonhumans, hedging serious issues, the employment of false balance, prioritizing human interests, neglecting nonhuman suffering and individuality, and concealing or ignoring the plethora of extant cruelty-free alternatives.

Second, we discovered that speciesism is mutating. It is inherently unstable because it is built on indefensible prejudice. To survive the constant influx of new challenges that threaten to expose it, speciesism employs changing techniques. For instance, camouflaging speciesism is more difficult to spot. It involves strategies of emotional reassurance and comfort such as “bait-and-switch” that assume an inherently cruelty-free place where “cows are happy and food is healthy,” where nonhumans are in control of their lives (as the quoted headline above), where we can still exploit and kill nonhumans without feeling guilty. As of now, the crude techniques of fear-mongering have not been relinquished; they continue to coexist with the camouflaged ones. The place where “cows are happy and food is healthy,” is only a picture on the cover. Once we open the book, we are reassured that humans will continue to be speciesist and that carnism is not going away because the cows are the food…

We also found that in a number of journalists’ stories NUF are represented from angles that see their inherent, rather than instrumental value. However,… we observed that speciesism is almost exclusively challenged at the section or paragraph level rather than the article level. The breadth and scope with which speciesism is challenged in EP is noticeably reduced compared to NYT. In the latter, challenge blends with defense within the same article and is refracted as soft speciesism.

Third, there are substantial differences between EP and NYT. While EP organizes its discourse on NUF within the perspective of crude speciesism, NYT increasingly incorporates a camouflaged version. The reasons behind these differences are worth exploring in a separate study. Here, we propose briefly that animal advocates have engendered frequent conversation about animal suffering in the United States in the last decades. Since discussing the injustice and arbitrariness of exploiting and killing NUF can shake the foundations of speciesism, such conversation is a threat to crude speciesism. Camouflaged speciesism can be seen, then, as the reaction to this conversation, as journalists’ strategy to hide the ideological problems that arise from it.

Camouflaged speciesism, however, is not a challenge to the status quo, just a strategy to ideologically reassure readers that things are morally right. As big business searches to cure its animal-unfriendly reputation, the media recalibrates its approach by producing stories framed as happy, promotional pieces. This is to signal to us, readers, that democracy is working, therefore, we should not; and that the invisible hand of the economy is working (business allegedly self-regulates), therefore, we should not. The Spanish delay in developing a public discussion on nonhuman oppression — due to the later development of animal rights activism there — may be at the heart of EP’s more basic, crude speciesism.

The status quo is not challenged, but hopeful signs exist. That is why we are encouraged that a more responsible journalism is possible. To achieve it, we recommend that journalists replace crude and camouflaged speciesism with a substantive moral position, i.e., animal rights, compatible with exposing and abolishing nonhuman oppression. To question media’s role in protecting speciesism, we recommend that journalists explore nonhuman treatment beyond concerns for human health, and forgo recasting stories about animal agriculture into happy, promotional pieces (unless the nonhumans in them live independent lives free of exploitation). We believe that cultivating a perspective based on empathy, fairness and justice is important in the process of challenging speciesism. It means telling everyone’s story, including that of NUF.

Empathy should not be confused with comforting lies, like describing nonhuman abuse as one among several equally valid ways to treat NUF or as the way only outliers treat NUF. We also encourage the media not to co-opt the empathy perspective into a discourse of welfarism, which ultimately condones oppression, thus simply another form of speciesism. Fairness is fact-driven. It answers readers’ desire for truth over the reinforcement of cultural myths—speciesism/carnism — even if readers subscribe to these myths. It also represents nonhuman interests more objectively by eliminating euphemisms.

In striving to achieve these, global journalists will meet the standard of professional conduct adopted in 1954 (amended in 1986) by the International Federation of Journalists, according to which journalists shall respect truth and “the right of the public to truth … shall not suppress essential information … shall be aware of the danger of discrimination being furthered by the media, and shall do the utmost to avoid facilitating such discrimination.” This standard is described as the duty of journalists, and is replicated in most international codes of ethics, including the ones by the US and Spanish journalists associations, as well as in the style guides of the two newspapers here analyzed. SOURCE…


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