Basic Standards For Animal Journalism

» September 25th, 2014

 Loyal readers: I’m on the verge of launching The Daily Pitchfork, a website dedicated to promoting accuracy and context in the field of animal journalism. What follows are some tentative standards that we’re asking journalists to consider when they write about animals in the mainstream media. Please provide feedback, suggestions, and critiques. Also, if you are interested in doing volunteer work for The Daily Pitchfork please send me a note (eatingplantsmcwilliams@gmail.com).

The Daily Pitchfork’s Basic Standards For Animal Journalism (DRAFT):

1)   Many animals are the sentient subjects of a life. They experience pleasure and pain. Journalists writing about these animals must—if only implicitly—acknowledge the reality of their consciousness. When they do so through the perspective of animal advocates, they must use the proper terminology to describe the advocate (not everyone is an “animal rights activist”).

2)   Many animals—particularly farm animals—are the products of extensive genetic manipulation.  Failure to recognize animals’ genetic situation fosters basic misunderstandings about their behavior. Journalists writing about these animals are obligated to frame their lives in the relevant genetic histories, noting when appropriate how that history shapes an animal’s behavior.

3)   The animals we eat and wear have to be slaughtered for these purposes. The nature of this process varies from backyard butchery to industrialized slaughter. Journalists writing about the life cycle of farm animals have an obligation to note the reality of slaughter, provide some insight into what it entails, and, when appropriate, illuminate the discomfort consumers and animals might have with the slaughtering process.

4)   The industrialization of animal agriculture has been, and continues to be, exposed for its unacceptable environmental and ethical practices. At the same time, journalists have increasingly turned their attention to non-industrial (small, local, humane) alternatives.  Writers must evaluate the environmental and ethical nature of these alternatives on their own terms rather than in comparison to the industrial models. They must do so, moreover, with the support of peer reviewed research rather than farmers’ claims to “sustainability” or “humaneness.”

5)   Animals have perspectives on their own lives. They cannot, however, articulate them for us the way other oppressed groups can. Journalists nonetheless have a duty to consider those perspectives. Doing so does not require anyone to adopt “an animal rights” position, but only to make a charitable effort—drawing on the work of animal ethology when possible—to give a voice to the voiceless.

23 Responses to Basic Standards For Animal Journalism

  1. Dan Hooley says:

    Here’s another possibility

    6) When quoting information from animal lobby groups, the fact that these groups lobby on behalf of animal industries should be made apparent. With this, their claims about the welfare standards and treatment of animals should not be taken for granted.

    ~I can’t tell you how many times I read articles where animal lobby groups are taken to provide the “farmer’s perspective” and the fact that they are a lobby group is ignored. Most journalists wouldn’t do this on the issue of climate change, but so often it happens on animal issues.

    • Susan Vitka says:

      Very important addition. Should also apply to health claims or criticisms of veganism made by animal food industry interests.

  2. Norm Phelps says:

    Congratulations! I think this is an excellent idea and these are excellent standards–although as with all standards, experience over time may suggest modifications or additions.

    I have only one suggestion: In item 1), to “They experience pleasure and pain,” you might consider adding, “and they love life and dread death.” This would make the point that the lives of animals, and not just their welfare before they are murdered, are important.

    I also like Dan Hooley’s suggestion.

    • Ellen K says:

      I like the suggested phrasing

    • unethical_and_speciesist_vegan says:

      “and they love life and dread death.”

      this is more important to me than a sentience criterion. as a prioritarian unethical vegan (and ridiculous meat-industry troll — according to jm) i value self-awareness far more than mere sentience.

  3. scott says:

    Great idea.

    “The animals we eat and wear have to be slaughtered for these purposes.”

    The animals that produce eggs and dairy are also slaughtered (young) as part of the process, as are the male chicks and male dairy calves. This reality should be noted as well.

    Thanks.

  4. Cindy Koczy says:

    The Daily Pitch Fork is a great idea! Thanks for being pro active James.

    I like what Dan had to say too.Very good point!

    I understand the point you made Norm..”and they love life and dread death.”Maybe in place of dread, you could say, animals fear death?Fear might cause more of a visceral reaction with readers, and for mainstream..we want to open their hearts and minds, and then get on with the intellectual out- pour.

    Point #3.Don’t understand”animals have to be slaughtered for which reasons ? If that could include some mention that they don’t have to be slaughtered, that we don’t have to eat them?

    Could you clarify James? or anybody else?

    • Patti says:

      I think that, more accurately, they would rather not be killed and fight against it when it’s happening. I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that animals “fear death” because that would require awareness of death before it is impending. They would rather not be killed, and feel fear in the process.

  5. Ellen K says:

    I’d add some questions for those covering food and health issues involving meat, dairy and eggs:
    Is the animal food the only or best source of a given nutrient? (no, and say so, and give plant option)
    Can the nutrient in question be sourced as well or better in its plant origin? (yes, and name those plants)
    Even if there is a possible benefit to eating an animal food, is it worth the unavoidable animal suffering and slaughter, and environmental cost? (no)
    For recipes, lead with or at least offer the plant-based option where it’s easily done, rather than always going with the animal-laden default. That is, suggest olive oil instead of the reflexive butter, a swirl of cashew cream to finish dishes instead of cow cream, homemade silken tofu yogurt or sour cream to top dishes, ground flax or any number of other options for the eggs automatically assumed for any baking, pigless bacon to add to dishes, and so on.

    I prefer not to think of giving “voice to the voiceless”, as animals are vocalizing loud and clear — we’re just not listening. Let’s think of another phrase to convey what I know you mean, about making their voices heard and understandable to humans.

    • Benny Malone says:

      So often journalists talk as if a problem they identify has to be ‘solved’ within the paradigm of animal exploitation – no consideration is given that the whole enterprise may be unnecessary – therefore I think there should be consideration given to this fact and the possibility of veganism. I agree with the point about the ‘voiceless’.

    • Ellen K says:

      I’d add to the question about even if there is possible benefit to eating an animal food, “even if there’s an aesthetic / taste pleasure” as well, whether that’s easily found in a plant source (mostly yes) and worth the animal cost (no).
      Same question to be asked for fashion writers, about aesthetic pleasure of leather, wool, fur, etc… really necessary? worth it? And entertainment, and lab testing, etc etc

      • Amby Duncan-Carr says:

        I could like to see ONLY human testing of medications or other products. There are PLENTY of folks who would gladly test household or personal care products and give their opinions (for monetary compensation).

        There is no real value in testing medications, etc. on rats, etc. when trying to develop a cure for a disease afflicting HUMAN animals. The more serious the condition, the easier it will be to recruit human test subjects, and the results will actually be applicable to to intended life form!!

  6. Benny Malone says:

    For point 1) could it elaborate on animals being subjects of a life by saying they should be talked about as individuals and if the gender is known referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ rather than ‘it’ as is so often seen? I think it is a good set of guidelines and good suggestion from Dan.

    • Ellen K says:

      Hear, hear.

      • Karen Harris says:

        That is the first thing that came to my mind as well. I think it actually makes a huge difference and speaks to the fact that sentient beings are subjects of a life and not commodities or things.
        I don’t know about “love” life and “dread” death. I’m not sure you could make that claim for humans or non-human animals.

  7. Dan Hooley says:

    I would avoid saying animals “dread” death, or that they fear death. Presumably, some animals don’t understand what death is. I think many have some understanding, but some likely don’t.

    However, like all animals, they have a survival instinct, show an aversion to pain, and clearly have an interest in continued existence. I’d just avoid being ‘more controversial’ where you don’t have to.

  8. Hope Bohanec says:

    I haven’t read all the comments so it might have already been suggested, but how about challenging the AP standard of calling animals “it”. Ships and hurricanes are sometimes referred to as “she”, but non-human sentient beings are always “it”. This of course diminishes their intrinsic value and makes it easier to eat and wear them.

  9. risa m. mandell says:

    concurring w/ Benny and Ellen K above – also, use of term, guardian instead of owner, for all domesticated animals even those who are commodified to emphasize proper conduct towards dependent, vulnerable beings. each individual other-than-human animal (OTHA), a chronically vulnerable population is sentient, has dignity, uniqueness, inherent worth, intention, preferences, subjectivity, attachments and relationships. lately, entertaining (sic) the thought that butchering is abuse of a corpse. wondering what others think about this as well as your responses to referring to any deceased OTHA as a corpse rather than carcass.

  10. I would love to see journalists – indeed, all writers – refrain from referring to an animal by what is done to them, rather than who they are or the exploitation they are being subjected to. Perhaps it’s too much to ask, but by this I mean using “farmed animal” rather than “farm animal,” “animals in captivity” rather than “captive animals,” “animals in labs” or “rats in labs” rather than “lab animal” or “lab rat,” “elephants in circuses” rather than “circus elephants,” etc.

  11. I’m so glad you are addressing this, James. My media studies colleague Debra Merskin and I are as well, for all types of media practitioners, as we are launching a website and facebook page called http://www.animalsandmedia.org
    It would be great if you could link to our website on your page and we can do the same for your website and perhaps find ways to collaborate. Cheers!

  12. John T. Maher says:

    I am going to briefly comment that deconstruction of animal journalism is a great idea as long as it does not veer to the dogmatic with proscribed terminology and ideology. Certainly it is a journalist’s duty to question normative standards and I trust that is what JMC has in mind which I envision as de-biasing the unfolding narrative record of history in real-time in order to make it accessible. That is what happened in Politics of the Pasture: JMC contested the narrative of Bill and Lou forced upon us by the college administrators and their magical thinking version of what sustainability might mean in practice for all the actors involved. The phrase “Many animals are the sentient subjects of a life” is both political and hedges as to which animals and to that degree locks the critic into a worldview formed by Tom Reganesque deontological thinking from whence many of us have moved forward. Tom Regan is a giant, but he stands for one mode of thought which has its own inconsistencies and problems. There is also something uncomfortably Hegelian about posits and opposites in journalism and a resulting synthesis.

    So this new project sounds exciting but all assumptions as to what constitutes anything close to the American view that journalism should be “unbiased” (which is itself a dishonest perspective claiming the moral high ground of a nonexistent objectovity) must be checked at the door.

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