How the media talks about animals matters. Most people do not have regular encounters with creatures like leopards (Panthera pardus), and they are not trained in wildlife biology. The media can thus be a powerful tool for disseminating knowledge about endangered animals. Unfortunately, as a new study reveals, this is a double-edged sword.
As the title suggests, this study examined media representations of leopards at three scales: local, national, and international. The authors wanted to see if news outlets, responding to divergent pressures, portrayed human-leopard interactions differently at each scale. Crown and Doubleday (2017) examined 291 articles about human-leopard interactions in India (p. 306), and their results were concerning.
At all scales, the most common portrayals of leopards were those that supported the “leopard as man-eater” narrative. There was also a serious lack of educational articles about leopards. However, there were observed differences between scales.
For example, international media outlets published ‘man-eater’ stories more frequently than the other two. Local news sources more readily used ‘leopard as victim’ frames than the other two, but they released the fewest informational pieces. National news outlets, by contrast, published the highest percentage of educational articles.
Crown and Doubleday’s (2017) findings suggest that readers at all levels are being presented with biased accounts of human-leopard interactions. These effects are compounded by the media’s reluctance to publish informational pieces.
As the authors point out, sharing factual information about leopards is an effective way to counter negative perceptions of them (Crown & Doubleday, 2017, p. 310). By frequently painting leopards as man-eaters, while simultaneously failing to present educational materials about them, media outlets might be reinforcing anti-leopard sentiments.
I find Crown and Doubleday’s (2017) emphasis on the importance of factual information to be quite interesting. This is because a recent study found that factual knowledge about jaguars and pumas in the Brazilian Pantanal influenced participants’ fear of the cats: respondents who knew more about jaguars and pumas were less afraid of them. This mattered, because people who were less afraid of the cats were more willing to co-exist with them (Engel, Vaske, Marchini, & Bath, 2017). This study corroborates Crown and Doubleday’s (2017) claims about the importance of disseminating knowledge.
‘Man-Eaters’ in the Media is a fascinating study. It raises important questions about how human-leopard interactions are portrayed by the media, and contains many references to equally-worthy articles.