Guidelines for Journalism

Guidelines for Journalism

SECTIONS BELOW

Introduction to Guidelines

Utilizing Animals as News Topics & Sources

Avoiding Bias

Covering Animal Advocacy Organizations

Selecting Appropriate Terminology

Amendments we recommend for Associated Press StyleBook

Amendments we recommend for SPJ code of ethics

 

Journalism is an essential institution responsible for holding the powerful accountable, informing and educating the electorate, reinforcing society’s values, serving as a forum for civic debate on essential issues, and setting the public agenda. For journalism to be successful and responsible as a profession, to serve in the public interest in a democratic society, it must speak truth to power; fairly represent a diverse array of relevant perspectives, including marginalized voices; work independent of economic influence and vested interest; be accountable to the public; and minimize undue harm to living beings.

We have articulated guidelines designed to help editors and journalists craft cutting edge, important stories on animal-related issues in ways that meet journalistic criteria of accuracy, fairness, and completeness. Our purpose in creating the following guidelines is to raise journalists’ awareness of the urgent need to be more inclusive of animal interests in stories affecting them, an act consistent with the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics[1] mandate to “give voice to the voiceless.” Journalism can create a better-informed public who is equipped to make educated, responsible decisions related to the billions of fellow beings on our shared planet.

Utilizing Animals as News Topics & Sources

As a matter of course, nonhuman animals and their perspectives should be routinely covered and included in news as about them, rather than relegating coverage to special, occasional stories. Journalists and editors should:

  • Dedicate time and space to coverage of interactions between human and nonhuman animals. Consistent coverage demonstrates animals are important subjects of interest and attention. This could involve assigning a dedicated journalist to this beat, perhaps combined with an environmental beat. This beat should present animal and ecological issues not only from a scientific or economic perspective, but also from socio-psychological, ethical, and political perspectives.
  • Acknowledge and include the perspective and interests of nonhuman animals within major news stories where animals are involved or affected (for example, stories about war, crime, health, food/dining, energy, politics, science, and lifestyles). (See Section Avoiding Bias for recommendations on how to do this).
  • Investigate animal exploitation and harm in its many forms, even legally sanctioned practices (such as farming, hunting, and experimentation) that are standard and routine. While illegal activities (such as dogfighting or trade in endangered species) are clearly newsworthy crime stories, the news should also question all human practices that involve and potentially harm animals. To be inclusive of both welfare and rights perspectives (See Glossary for definitions of these terms), a critique should not only involve questioning the treatment of animals used by industry but also the rights and entitlement of humans to use sentient beings for whatever reasons. These investigations support journalism’s function of holding the powerful accountable.
  • Show animals interacting with human caretakers. While some stories will be conflict-oriented or concern abuse, it is important to also model positive bonds and mutually beneficial interspecies relationships that are possible between caregivers and animals.

Avoiding Bias

Naturally, news stories are typically framed in ways that prioritize human interests/needs/perspectives. Privileging human interests can give the impression that nonhuman animals do not also have interests at stake or perspectives on issues that affect them. This need not be an either/or situation. To help avoid an anthropocentric bias (similar to how racial or gender bias should be avoided), and in the interest of fairness, journalists and editors should:

  • Recognize that animals have an interest in habitat, territory, food, water, safety, companionship, and freedoms from pain, injury, distress, and exploitation, as well as needs to freely express normal behavior and maintain their preferred relationships. (See also Five Freedoms)[2]
  • Represent nonhuman animals as sentient individuals (fellow species who share the planet) rather than presenting them primarily in human-centered terms. Avoid stereotyping species by defining them primarily as pests, threats, game, or tools for humans for food, research, skins, or entertainment). Acknowledge that fellow animals, rather than being mere mechanical, instinctual beings, are individuals who exercise agency and have perspectives and feelings.
  • Dedicate space to exploring the complex interactions between humans and the natural world, while questioning long-standing cultural prejudices against and dislike for certain species (ex: dolphins and whales over fish, horses over cows, dogs over wolves, songbirds over chickens or pigeons, mammals over reptiles, vertebrates over invertebrates, etc.). Avoid stereotypically constructing inter-species conflicts as premeditated based solely on species membership (ex: cats against birds, dogs against cats, wolves against humans).
  • Whenever possible, use audio-visual media to present real animals living in their natural or captive environments, expressing themselves using their own species-specific ways of communicating. Audio-visual media are especially useful at educating audiences about where and how animals actually live.
  • Interpret other species’ basic communications if they seem self-evident, such as joy, curiosity, fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, affection, boredom, or playfulness, to acknowledge these emotions for the audience. In some cases, more nuanced interpretation of animal communication might require the use of professionals, such as biologists, ethologists, and animal advocates. Experts can also be used as sources to speak on behalf of animal species’ general interests. While humans who hunt, farm, use, or own animals should be represented in the news, this perspective should be balanced with sources who advocate on the animals’ behalf (especially those who do not have a vested/financial interest in the use of animals). The latter category may include attorneys, animal activists, ethologists, biologists, veterinarians (ones whose business is not dependent on industry), animal companions and guardians, and vegans (people who do not use or consume products taken from or researched on animals). See Section Selecting Appropriate Terminology for recommendations.

Covering Animal Advocacy Organizations

To be inclusive and fair, journalists and editors should:

  • Balance industry and government sources with activist sources where any issue affecting or involving animals is discussed. For example, a mass killing of cows due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease should not only be reported from the side of agribusiness and government regulators (solely as an economic loss or public health issue), but also from the perspectives of farmed animal advocacy groups (as a rights and welfare issue for animals and workers).

Complex issues, such as mass extinction of species and use of animals as resources do not always fit well into event-focused news (episodic coverage). And dramatic protest events and direct action by certain activist groups tend to get more news coverage than less dramatic activist campaigns and thus become the “face” of the animal protection movement to the public (often creating a radical stereotype that is unrepresentative of the social movement as a whole). To address this imbalance and favor more thematic coverage, journalists and editors should:

  • Include the context and history of animal advocacy events and accomplishments across the entire spectrum from more radical to moderate tactics and ideologies. This will provide a more representative picture of the diversity of the movement and its motivations for the public to consider. The goal is to cover substance rather than spectacle.

Broadcast and digital news often rely on dramatic images. For animals, dramatic footage often comes in the form of undercover footage. Yet, behind-the-scenes footage of animal exploitation is difficult and risky to obtain, especially, in some states, as recent “ag gag” laws increase the criminal punishment for anyone documenting and exposing farmed animal conditions. Yet owners of domesticated or captive animals must be held accountable, allowing the public visual access to determine whether the treatment of these vulnerable beings is fair and in accordance with societal values, expectations, and laws. In selecting visuals, journalists and editors should:

  • Be willing to air verified undercover footage of exploitation of animals for public debate as well as obtain such footage themselves when other open means of investigation do not yield access to verifying and exposing routine treatment and living conditions of animals.
  • Balance footage of animals as victims by also showcasing animals in empowering ways as fellow, productive citizens of their own communities (not just dependent beings, totally reliant upon human care or mercy).
  • Seek visual evidence of wild animals in their natural habitats living as free, independent adults in social settings rather than relying on images of captive animals in zoos or aquaria.

Selecting Appropriate Terminology

Similar to language that denigrates, devalues, and misrepresents certain human beings on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, speciesist language is also a form of “self aggrandizing prejudice” that “promotes a false dichotomy between humans and nonhumans” and emphasizes a privileging of humans as separate from and superior to the animal kingdom, tacitly justifying humans’ entitlement to use others as a resource.[3] To address bias in language, journalists and editors should:

  • Be clear who is included in the term “animal.” Use more precise terms such as nonhuman animals, animals excluding humans, or other than human animals (at least upon first use, clarifying that the word “animal” from here on out will be used to designate nonhumans in the rest of the article). This is not only more accurate but also more inclusive in acknowledging humans as members of the animal kingdom. Another way to rhetorically exclude humans when talking about other animals is for journalists to simply list the type of animal category more precisely: for example, farmed animals, companion animals, wildlife or free-roaming animals, nonhuman primates, reptiles, birds, insects, aquatic animals, and endangered species.
  • Accurately describe animals by gender (e.g. he or she, him or her) rather than saying “it” (a pronoun most befitting an inanimate object). “It” can be used to describe an entire species category but not an individual. When gender is unknown, use the plural term “they” or “theirs” or perhaps “he or she.” For androgynous species, “they” or “theirs” is preferable to “it.” Similarly, journalists should use “who” instead of “that,” and “someone” or “somebody” instead of “something.” This language recognizes animals as sentient, animated beings.
  • Strive for neutrality. Avoid primarily using industry terms (especially euphemisms) to describe and define animals; instead, use given species names or refer to them as someone who is used by an industry, as that industry use does not define them and is something that is done to them, often against their will. This shows a respect similar to choosing to say someone is enslaved rather than calling them a slave, or saying someone is a person with a disability rather than calling them a disabled person (See chart for examples).[4]
Instead of These Terms: Use These More Precise and Neutral Terms:
it, that or which, something. he/she, they, who, whom, someone or somebody.
pets companion animals; nonhuman family members
OBJECTIFYING INDUSTRY TERMS: ANIMATED SPECIES NAMES:
livestock cows, sheep, pigs, donkeys, etc.
poultry chickens, turkeys, geese, etc.
pork pigs
veal calves
seafood fish, salmon, shrimp, etc.
game deer, rabbits, foxes, etc.
PASSIVE TERMS THAT CONCEAL HUMAN CONTROL ACTIVE TERMS THAT REVEAL HUMAN CONTROL
farm animals, farmed animals, animals raised for food
dairy cows cows used for their milk /dairy
beef cattle cows and bulls killed for beef/meat/flesh
lab rat rats used as research subjects
circus elephant elephants kept in circuses; elephants trained to perform for humans

[1] http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

[2] Five Freedoms @ http://www.fawc.org.uk/freedoms.htm

[3] Dunayer, 2001, p. 1; 4.

[4] Some of these recommendations were drawn from:

  • Dunayer, Joan (2001). Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, Derwood, Maryland: Ryce Publishing. (see especially her detailed Style Guidelines section pp 179-201).
  • Freeman, Carrie P., Bekoff, Marc & Bexell, Sarah (2011).Giving voice to the voiceless: Incorporating nonhuman animal perspectives as journalistic sources. Journalism Studies, 12(5), 590-607.

 

Amendments we recommend for Associated Press (AP) StyleBook:

Add a category for “Speciesism” to say “see animals.”

Then replace the current Animals section with the following:

Animals. While each animal species and individual, including humans, is unique, all animals share a status as fellow sentient beings. To avoid an anthropocentric (speciesist) bias against nonhuman animal species, the interests of nonhuman animals should be included in stories affecting them. Treatment of animals should be evenhanded, non-condescending, and free of assumptions and stereotypes.

If the animal has a known name, use his or her name and capitalize it (Ex: Wicker). When an animal’s sex has been established, use the appropriate personal pronoun.  Elliott gets excited when he goes to the dog park. The mother cat, who heard her kittens cry, ran to her basket. The bull tosses his horns.  If the sex of the animal is unknown, follow the rules as used with humans, so as not to refer to anyone as “it.” Try to rewrite the sentence with a plural subject so that the gender-neutral “they” would work. If the subject must remain singular, either choose “they” or use “his or her” or “he or she” rather than the inanimate “it.” Regardless of sex, use “who” rather than “that” or “which” when describing any animal individual. The dog, who seemed to be lost, barked when he or she saw us approaching. A chick is often hesitant to leave the nest for their first flight.

 

Amendments we recommend to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) 2014 code of ethics:

In the “Seek Truth & Report It” section: (our recommendations are in bold)

  • Give voice to the voiceless (including marginalized human groups, nonhuman animals, and advocates on behalf of nature).
  • Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human and animal experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear. Be inclusive of all relevant stakeholders in the story (nonhuman animals included) and incorporate multiple perspectives on issues for fairness and diversity.

The new codes for 2014 still advise to “avoid stereotyping” but no longer list categories. We suggest that “species” be considered among the implied categories. For example, “avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, species, physical appearance or social status.” In the same way journalists would hope to avoid racism, sexism, agism and other biases in their reporting, adding “species” calls attention to a common speciesist bias where humans privilege their own species over other animal species.

In the “Minimize Harm” section:

Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues, and members of the public as individuals deserving of respect.  (we suggest replacing “human beings” with the more species-inclusive term “individuals”)

 

 For citation purposes, this page was last updated September 2016.