Entertainment Media Guidelines
Entertainment is a core activity in public life, something we seek for amusement as well as education and cultural exchange. In an era of ecological crisis, mass extinction of species, and industrialized exploitation of billions of animals, it is fair to inquire whether entertainment programming (film, television, video games) contributes to the problem, but more so, can entertainment programming also be part of the solution, inspiring positive social change? Here are some suggestions for the latter:
- Ensure that television programs and films include and address problems facing animals and nature rather than primarily framing animals and nature as the problem.
- Diversify network, cable, satellite, and web-based television programming to ensure more represent the perspectives of animal liberation and animal welfare (in both fiction and nonfiction formats and dramatic and comedic formats). While some programs will continue to take a more anthropocentric (human-centered) perspective, for the sake of diversity and innovation, some should branch out and take a more bio-centric (life-centered) or eco-centric (ecosystems-centered) perspective that privileges the interests of other species.
- Include nonhuman animals’ stories. Represent them as individuals with their own self-interests, rather than presenting them mainly in human-centered terms. For example, avoid stereotyping species by defining them primarily as pests, threats, game, or tools for human use (for food, research, skins, or entertainment). Acknowledge that they have thoughts and feelings and exhibit some rational agency (free will), rather than just more mechanical behaviors, responses, and instincts. This acknowledges that there is uniqueness (such as different personalities and preferences) among individuals within the same species. These diverse personalities should be fun for viewers to explore.
- Remind viewers that we too are animals and naturally share many traits. It is helpful any time programming can deconstruct the dichotomies that falsely separate humans from animals and nature from culture, reuniting us instead. To embrace multi-culturalism, entertainment programming can serve as ethnography, teaching us about other animal cultures. This call for increased respect and understanding for other animal species is akin to all social justice movements asking for respectful relations among different human groups.
- While anthropomorphism of animals (especially in children’s programming) can be useful in bringing audiences closer to other animals and recognizes nonhuman animals as persons who have emotions similar to human animals, it can risk misrepresenting other animal species and creating unrealistic expectations for how real animals should behave (especially to be attractive to humans). Therefore, content creators should be careful not to rely too heavily on formulaic, romanticized, cutesy approximations of other animals and instead attempt to more accurately capture the essence of their actual personalities and behaviors. This will help us to accept and appreciate them on their own terms, whether they are similar to us or not.
- Recognize that programming featuring nonhuman animals (including wildlife documentaries) currently tends to over-represent charismatic megafauna, i.e. mammals and birds who are considered the most attractive and appealing to humans. This tendency may also result in viewers regarding them as “characters,” while other species, by comparison, may seem uninteresting and unimportant. For accuracy and biodiversity, creators should make an effort to also showcase and introduce audiences to other types of animal species such as fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and invertebrates (especially as the latter category comprise the majority of the species on Earth).
- Call attention to biodiversity loss and the need to protect endangered species and their habitats, while being cautious about frequently portraying endangered species. Studies have shown that audiences come to believe that a species is abundant and healthy the more they see the endangered species visually represented in the media. We recommend telling the stories of a wider variety of endangered species rather than the select few who are most popular (i.e. not just gorillas, panda bears, whales, etc.)
- Avoid using wild animals (such as captive, trained animals) as performers, and instead use digital technology to represent them. Actors (of any species) should be participating of their own free will.
- Take care not to harm animals or damage ecosystems while filming or making programs.
- Be selective in portrayals of wildlife (free-roaming animals) so as not to over-represent predatory-prey conflicts for dramatic purposes. Over reliance on tooth-and-claw representations imply nature and wildlife are primarily harsh and dangerous (in contrast to “civilized” human culture). Balance this with portrayals of more filial, cooperative, or symbiotic relations between wild species and among their family or community groups.
- Consider the behavior and values of human characters portrayed on screen to determine what messages they convey about the human capacity for kindness and social and ecological responsibility. Ask what habits the characters model (especially charismatic characters framed as heroes or protagonists) and consider the effects on audiences of attitudes and actions portrayed as normal, acceptable, or cool vs. aberrant, archaic, or objectionable. Consider including more diverse representations of characters who live simply and have a low carbon footprint, live animal-friendly/vegan lifestyles (boycotting all products taken from or tested on animals), choose to have a small family or adopt children, recycle, engage in volunteerism and civic actions, adopt rescued companion animals, and demonstrate compassion and nonviolence toward all living beings.
- Encourage programming that invites viewers to envision a future world governed by ecological principles and sustainable practices. Creative storytelling and imaginative narratives can serve as a path to achieve this better world.
- Also see Selecting Appropriate Terminology in the Journalism section for tips on respectful language.
For wildlife filmmakers, see these IWFF Guidelines for Ethical Wildlife Filmmaking written by the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University and the International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF):
 Schroepfer, K. K., Rosati, A. G., Chartrand, T., & Hare, B. (2011). Use of “entertainment” chimpanzees in commercials distorts public perception regarding their conservation status. PLOS ONE.
Apes in media and commercial performances. White paper. Association of Zoos and Aquariums. https://www.aza.org/white-paper-apes-in-media-and-commercial-performances/
For citation purposes, this page was last updated August 2015.