Meat in the media – what do we know about media coverage of animal agriculture, climate change, diet and lab-grown alternatives?

by James Painter, LEAP collaborator 

We know that the majority of people in most countries of the world get their information about science, health and environmental issues from the media.  In the case of the corona virus for example, in the UK most people rely heavily on news organizations for trusted information.

As for climate change, recent data from 40 countries shows the public pay most attention to television (35%) followed by the online sites of mainstream media organizations (15%). As a sign of the times, printed newspapers are now less important as a source than conversations with family and friends.

So it is important to study broadcast and mainstream online sites if you want insights into how the media is setting the agenda on a range of contemporary issues, determining what the public think is important, and shaping the manner in which discussions about them take place.

A team of us have looked at recent online coverage of two such issues – animal agriculture and its links to climate change, and lab-grown (or cultured) meat as an alternative to meat eating.

Focus group work in several countries has shown that public awareness of the link between animal food consumption and climate change is low; this may be one of many obstacles to more effective interventions to reduce meat consumption in Western diets, which has been proposed by many research institutions.

A small amount of previous research has shown that in the past, the media has paid little attention to animal agriculture’s role in climate change even though we know that it is a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to about 15 per cent of global emissions - approximately the same size as the transportation sector. 

Our study updates this research by focusing on the level of attention to this issue in the UK and US elite media from 2006 to 2018. But we were also interested in several other research questions including the causes and solutions discussed, and the roles and responsibilities of various parties in addressing the problem.[1] 

The results show that during that period, volume of coverage remained low. However, it did pick up in 2018 mostly driven by coverage from the Guardian of recent scientific papers, including some associated with LEAP.

When the issue was covered, consumer responsibility was mentioned more than that of governments or large-scale livestock farms.  In similar fashion, a range of options around personal dietary change was far more prominent in the media discussion of solutions than government policies, reforming agricultural practices or holding major animal food companies accountable for their emissions.

For example, government regulation or taxes were mentioned in our media sample much less than consumer solutions, a result which is mirrored in government responsibility being mentioned five times less than consumer responsibility. 

[1] For more details, see the video presentation by co-researcher Silje Kristiansen

Our results also show that the combined mention of businesses and factory farms as responsible for animal agriculture’s contribution to emissions is well below the total number of mentions of consumers. The media paid less attention to suppliers and more on the demand makers, the consumers.

Some would argue that a strong (media) focus on individual consumer choices helps to take the responsibility off the necessary systemic changes that governments should be introducing, and distracts attention from the responsibility of large (polluting) corporations.

However, there are signs that media interest is picking up in recent months, at least in the UK.  Forthcoming LEAP research shows that the 2019 IPCC report on climate change and land received widespread attention on mainstream and social media; the Guardian has launched its Animals Farmed index; and Carbon Brief has published a whole series on diets and climate change.

It is also true that from 2017 media interest has picked up notably on the possibilities of lab-grown or cultured meat, after a relatively ‘fallow’ period following the launch of the first lab-grown burger in 2013.

In our study, we took the period 2013-2019 and examined over 250 articles from 12 US and UK traditional media outlets, which are known for being particularly trusted and used.

Our main conclusion is that despite the many uncertainties around cultured meat, news media may be playing a key role in contributing to overly positive descriptions of cultured meat, by overemphasizing its potential benefits to the environment, health, animal welfare and feeding a growing population.

Other results are that:

  • Much of the coverage was prompted by the industry sector, whose representatives are also the most quoted. 
  • Positive narratives about cultured meat are much more prominent than cautionary ones, and the overwhelming majority of articles show a positive sentiment.
  • The positive narratives do roughly match the five promissory narratives identified by other LEAP-financed research.
  • Much of the first-hand insight is not coming from independent academics, but from affiliated researchers, who may have strong financial incentives to promote their research.

Our findings support existing scholarship on other emerging technologies such as biotechnology, stem cells, and Artificial Intelligence, which concluded that with important variations, media treatments are largely positive.  The media influence, although complex, means there are risks of overselling both the benefits and perils of new technologies.