The Impact of Animal Agriculture on Climate Change: Examining The Awareness Gap Through Media Representations
Though the extent to which humans affect climate change is still a topic of debate, scientists overwhelmingly agree that human activity is the major cause of modern global warming. In 2006, the FAO published a report titled Livestock’s Long Shadow which concluded that 18% of human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions are due to animal agriculture, a more significant share than the entire transportation sector, which accounts for 13% (Steinfeld et al., 2006). This is because a particular digestive process of livestock such as cattle, goats, and sheep produces two potent greenhouse gases: methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). In addition, the rising demand for animal products is directly linked to deforestation, due to the need for feed production and cattle ranching, which contributes 17.4% of anthropogenic GHG emissions (IPCC, 2007; Gill et al., 2010). According to Börnecke (2014), estimates on the role of animal farming vary from 6–32% depending on the measurement methods. As a result, organizations like the United Nations stated that “a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change” while in 2017 the Alliance of World Scientists also called for drastically reducing our per capita consumption of meat. Despite those warnings, however, Bailey et al. (2014) argue that there is an “awareness gap” when it comes to addressing the livestock sector’s contributions to climate change, and found that, when compared to other sectors such as exhaust emissions and power production, the awareness gap was significantly large, which is supported by other research (Cordts et al., 2014; De Boer et al., 2012). As a result, consumption of animal products has remained relatively stable in the last decade, and variations in the kind of products consumed (poultry and cheese versus red meat) can be attributed to health concerns rather than environmental ones.
One of the explanations for the lack of awareness of the issue and its limited presence in mainstream climate policy discussions has to do with low levels of media coverage. Therefore, this essay will attempt to answer the following question: how and to what extent is the livestock-climate change link portrayed by mass media, and how does this differ across countries and platforms? Since the way the media chooses to frame or portray an issue is instrumental in influencing the public’s understanding of it, this is an important topic to examine considering the drastic measures we need to take to mitigate climate change. In this case study, I will a) review the existing literature on media coverage and livestock and climate change, b) combine previous data and present my own investigation of online media representations, and c) attempt to explain and analyze those patterns.
There is no shortage of academic research when it comes to media representations of climate change. In his 2011 book Who speaks for the climate?, Maxwell Boykoff tries to make sense of exactly this question. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was overrepresentation of climate change skeptics in climate debates — often for the sake of sensationalism, or due to the influence of the fossil fuel industry and/or conservative ideologies — despite the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community (Antilla, 2005; Goodman & Goodman, 2005) thus highlighting the well-established gap between science and media (Peters, 2013; Legagneux et al., 2018). This false balance has started to fade in the twenty-first century, but Greenberg et al. (2013) demonstrate that, at least in the US, media coverage is still often unreliable and inaccurate. Crucially, most researchers agree that mass media have the ability to shape perceptions of climate change and influence both informal public opinion and formal policies (Boykoff, 2011; Trumbo, 1996; Sampei & Aoyagi-Usui, 2009; Matthews, 2015; Anderson, 2009; Barkemeyer et al., 2017).
However, there is significantly less research on media coverage of livestock and climate change in particular. One of the first studies was conducted by Neff et al. (2008), which analyzed US newspaper coverage of food system contributions to climate change. They used a sample of sixteen leading US papers from September 2005 to January 2008 and coded articles “food and climate change” and “climate change” based on set criteria. They examined changes across time and newspapers, and found that among 4582 ‘climate change’ articles during this period, 2.4% mentioned agriculture contributions, 0.4% had a substantial focus on the food system, and only 0.5% mentioned animal agriculture contributions. They concluded that throughout this period there was an increase in content on food system contributions, but it did not reflect the strength of the scientific evidence.
In a more qualitative study, Kiesel (2010) did a comparative rhetorical analysis of British and American coverage of Livestock’s Long Shadow using articles from The New York Times and The Guardian/ Observer from November 2006, when the report was published, to December 2008. There were only three and six articles in each source respectively. Kiesel concludes that though both outlets acknowledged the climate change-livestock link, when it came to addressing solutions for the problem, they were very cautious to suggest individual or public changes. The story is not necessarily different when coding for livestock-related, rather than climate-related, articles. Lee et al. (2012) did a systematic content analysis of “livestock” articles in the Los Angeles Times from 1999 to 2010 using actor-network theory and found that just 5% of them addressed the climate change link, though they did focus on both technological, policy, and individual lifestyle changes.
The picture is no different in non-English speaking countries. Almirron & Zoppeddu (2014) aimed to study the same issue using a sample of 138 articles from leading Spanish and Italian national newspapers between November 2006 and September 2013. They conducted a content analysis to investigate how climate change articles addressed the impact of meat on climate change, as well as a critical discourse analysis of a subsample of articles to study the issue on a more linguistic level. They found that, from 18,921 articles in the Spanish sample and in 3,520 articles in the Italian, 1.5% and 3.6% mentioned the role of animal-based diets respectively. They also suggest three discourse patterns through which media downplay the issue: suppression, ambiguity, and sarcasm, for example referring to Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday initiative as the “ex-Beatles’ latest crazy idea”. Overall, they conclude that their findings support those of Neff et al. (2008) and Kiesel (2010), as well as the right-wing skepticism that Boykoff (2011) shed light on, and that there is no significant difference between Southern European and USA/UK coverage, despite their Mediterranean culture and diet.
Lahsen (2017) argues that the numbers are significantly lower in Brazil, despite the fact that, unlike other countries, beef is the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. In Brazilian newspapers from 2007 to 2008, only 0.14% of the articles that mentioned climate change — 0.001% of the total word count — framed meat as a problem, and those that did approached it from an angle that minimized a sense of concern, urgency, and agency. The same pattern has been found in Australian newspapers (Friedlander et al., 2014; Mayes, 2016), and both researchers analyze this pattern through the countries’ significant social, political, and economic ties to the animal agriculture industry, which form the biggest barrier to demand-side mitigation.
Greek Media Coverage of the Meat-Climate Link
In order to form a more coherent, comprehensive, and broad answer to the research question, it is important to bring together and compare both quantitative and qualitative data from the literature, as well as provide further insight through my own preliminary research focusing on Greek online newspapers and Netflix documentaries. The graph below illustrates how media representations of the climate change-livestock link vary by country based on the studies mentioned previously.
Though the time-frames, sample sizes, and methodologies differ from study to study, they all, with the possible outlier of the Italian press, underreport the issue, as the overall average percentage of climate change articles mentioning livestock or meat is 1.24%. As for similarities that arose from content analysis, the studies demonstrate that the articles undermined the significance of the issue through tone and language, avoided suggesting drastic changes (such as taxing animal products) and demand-side solutions (Mayes, 2016), and that those that suggested dietary changes are more likely to be considered less newsworthy, as they are often in the ‘Lifestyle’ section (Neff et al., 2008). Mayes (2016) also notes that the same journalists are often responsible for sustaining coverage on the problem.
I have also included data that I have analyzed from the Greek online press. Gkiouzepas & Botetzakias (2017, 2018) have analyzed Greek reporting of climate change, but since there has not been any study specifically on the impact of livestock, it is an interesting field to explore. I identified the number of articles tagged “climate change” (CC) in six Greek online news sources and then searched for the keyword “meat” to locate articles that mentioned the environmental impact of meat in the title or in a significant portion of the main text (MCC).
In line with data from other countries, twenty-four out of roughly 4629 overall results, or 0.5% of articles, presented the climate change-meat link. Though the findings may have been more accurate had the analysis been more extensive and rigorously conducted (for example, by using more reliable search methods), it is unlikely that the pattern would have been much different. Greek media coverage further supports Almirron & Zoppeddu (2014)’s assertion that Mediterranean culture does not affect concern over the effects of meat. A content analysis of the MCC articles also showed that, depending on the type of newspaper, the tone was often hesitant or cautious, for example by framing the title as a question rather than a statement or placing it within quotes to infer opinion rather than fact and avoid implying endorsement.
A Different Kind of Bias: Media Coverage of Environmental Documentaries
Evaluating data on Netflix documentaries and media coverage of them can also be useful, as the streaming platform is a prominent new medium for audiences. As Paula Bernstein notes, Netflix has built “a strong documentary brand” and is “demystifying documentaries for people who were previously turned off by the notion of a nonfiction film.” I have identified six documentaries on climate change that were available on Netflix for at least a year: Antarctic Edge: 70° South, Before the Flood, Chasing Ice, Cowspiracy, Mission Blue, and More than Honey. Of those, three are in some way related to animal agriculture (Cowspiracy, Mission Blue, More than Honey) and two (Cowspiracy and Before the Flood) directly mention the impact of livestock, with Cowspiracy making the issue, as well as the individual decisions we can make to solve it, its main thematic focus. The fact that 33% of the small sample of documentaries make the link explicit is a positive sign of improvement compared to the first wave of environmental documentaries that ignored it, specifically Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (and its sequel), and shows that independent filmmakers can find their voice and media consumers can get informed through such platforms.
However, the extent to which those documentaries are represented in major media outlets brings us back to previously uncovered patterns. To examine this, I compared the number of critic reviews each documentary received from Rotten Tomatoes- and Metacritic-approved media publications. Though critic reviews are only one aspect of media coverage, they are an easily measurable indicator of media attention.
Chasing Ice received the highest amount of media reviews, followed by More than Honey, while Cowspiracy, the only documentary extensively investigating the livestock-climate link, received the lowest, with no significant differences between the two aggregators. Cowspiracy only earned one, considerably brief though positive review from Common Sense Media, despite the fact that it was executive-produced by the same Hollywood star who made Before the Flood, Leonardo DiCaprio.
Importantly, this pattern is not necessarily simply a reflection of a documentary’s popularity, but rather further evidence of existing media bias. To illustrate this, since Netflix keeps viewership numbers hidden, I have gathered data from Letterboxd, an online movie community and database visited mostly by America- and UK-based cinephiles (according to statistics from Alexa.com), and the Internet Movie Database. As the graphs below shows, Cowspiracy is the second most popular documentary for movie fans, indicating a disconnect between media and public interest, though differences in age between online users and established critics may also play a role. The majority of user ratings were positive, but I have focused on the amount of ratings and views with the mindset that extent of exposure, engagement, and critical discussion are more important than personal reaction.
To understand why media coverage is limited, researchers have previously referred to various disciplinary perspectives, though it is only possible to outline them here. I have already mentioned how the politicized nature of livestock and economic importance of agriculture affect media, and this is supported by the analysis of Greek media, as the country has a large agricultural/livestock sector. The economic crisis may also affect the quality of journalism due to budget cuts and less staff, resulting in a focus on the energy sector (Neff et al., 2008). From a sociocultural perspective, meat-eating in Western countries is a culturally ingrained practice and social tradition, thus causing reluctance to recommend individual changes (Mahsen, 2017; Taylor, 2012), which is consistent with Freeman’s (2010) observation that environmentalists may inconsistently emphasize the severity of the livestock problem but downplay personal responsibility. Freeman (2009) also illustrates that promoting a speciesist philosophy that commodifies nonhuman animals has become part of US newsroom culture. Alternatively, a psychologist might explain this bias through what Melanie Joy (2011) describes as carnism — the dominant yet invisible ideology that conditions us to eat certain animals. This internalized belief system makes us perceive meat-eating as normal, natural, and necessary to remove moral discomfort.
There is substantial evidence that, despite some improvement, the media barely address the impact of livestock on climate change. Cross-national comparisons show minor variations in the extent of media coverage, but the pattern and framing of the issue remained the same. Though the media did accept scientific data, there was a tendency to underreport and minimize the weight of the problem, as well as to deflect responsibility away from individuals or suggest major changes. My analysis of online Greek publications further supported previous findings. There is reason to be optimistic about independently-produced environmental documentaries with a more open attitude towards the issue that raise awareness, but there is once again a bias when it comes giving them media attention. An interdisciplinary approach is necessary to understand the complex ways in which economic, political, sociocultural, and psychological factors interact to form a barrier to media coverage and consequently behavioural change. Cutting down animal products is one of the most effective ways we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and since journalists, as gatekeepers of society, can reconstruct and redefine what we see as normal practice (Brulle & Dispensa, 2006), coverage is vital for change to occur through both public awareness and policies.
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