A Q&A with Sentient Media

Q: What percentage of people know what caused COVID-19?

Today, ​up to 90% of people in the U.S. do not understand where the novel coronavirus​ came from.

Q: Why do so few Americans understand the cause of the outbreak?

Prevailing media outlets are neglecting to report on the connection between COVID-19 and the human exploitation of non-human animals. Yet the crisis we are experiencing now is nothing new, and neither are its origins. Whether the pandemic’s first jump from non-human animals over to humans was transmitted by a bat, a pangolin, or some other wildlife hunted or farmed for human consumption, the pattern of human diseases arising from our intensive use and exploitation of other animals is well established. We have seen zoonotic pandemics emerge from the animal trade before and will experience them again if we do not take steps to change our broken food system.

Q: Why do media outlets leave out critical information about zoonotic diseases, and to what degree is this a pattern?

Unfortunately, media blind spots are well established when inconvenient truths are involved. The climate crisis serves as another poignant example. Animal agriculture is a major producer of climate emissions, but in mainstream media reporting about the crisis, animal agriculture is underrepresented by as much as 85%. Conversely, if the various industries causing climate emissions were reported on in proportion to their emissions, animal agriculture should be reported 600% more than it currently is.

Q: How does the media’s messaging need to shift?

While headlines about toilet paper shortages and business closures have grabbed our attention, ​a new strain of bird flu (H5N8) has recently appeared in Germany, an African swine fever outbreak has been reported in Western Poland and in China, 4.4% of the population is already infected with a new swine flu, G4, genetically descended from the H1N1 strain that caused a pandemic in 2009. Many of the world’s largest news publishers are failing to explain the causal relation between factory farming and pandemics. Even when articles explicitly mention COVID-19’s connection to animals, they neglect to mention that human exploitation of non-human animals is at the root of the pandemic. COVID-19’s animal origin needs to be reported in its entirety​, not just what's convenient for people to hear. With strong, consistent messaging now, we can and must irrevocably connect all of the dots.

Q: How did you assess mainstream media’s underreporting of the cause of COVID-19?

In March and April, Sentient Media surveyed five of the largest publications in the world—NPR, BBC, The Guardian, The Washington Post and The New York Times—to find out how they’re reporting on coronavirus.

The survey specifically looked for mentions of the words “animal” and “origin” in trend stories and overview pieces about the pandemic, as both reflect the kind of comprehensive coverage that should mention COVID-19’s animal link.

While at the time about 70% of the articles we surveyed explained where the virus originated, very few made the connection to the cause of the outbreak. Only 15 out of the 50 most popular articles we surveyed accurately explained humans' culpability in the origination of the virus.

Q: How should the media be explaining the cause of COVID-19, and why is this important?

The COVID-19 outbreak was caused by humans. Without the wildlife trafficking industry, we would not have coronavirus. Without industrial animal agriculture, we would not have had any of the pandemics we’ve faced. Unless we start reporting on the true cause of this pandemic and its implications for animal agriculture, we'll never be able to take the steps necessary to prevent the next outbreak.

Q: What is the power of social media in telling the COVID-19 story, and is it doing a good job?

To understand the potential that social media has to influence millions of users each day, Sentient Media monitored 10 major news outlets’ coverage of COVID-19 on Instagram. Though nearly every post for March and April was coronavirus-related, there was a severe lack of visual imagery highlighting the connection between our current food system and pandemics.

Combined, the three top news organizations—The New York Times, The Washington Post and HuffPost—have the potential to reach over 116 million people across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter each day. Just these three could have a major positive impact on the public’s understanding of COVID-19 and why confining animals, as we see in wildlife markets and factory farms around the world, creates breeding grounds for disease.

The research found that the presence of wildlife market imagery and photos of factory farms, which could be harboring the next pandemic much closer to home, were nearly non-existent.

The issue is, if those who follow vegan or animal rights outlets on social media are getting the facts, we’re not changing minds, we’re in an echo chamber. If mainstream publications start to share the images and details that we’re reporting, then we reach those outside the movement. And that’s the goal of Sentient Media, and the responsibility of mainstream press.

Q: What can be done to encourage more comprehensive COVID-19 reporting?

The need for candid, fact-driven news coverage has never been greater. What is being made rapidly apparent during the pandemic is that the need for news monitoring is just as great. Over the past two months, The New York Times, NPR and The Guardian all failed to cover COVID-19’s animal angle responsibly. It’s up to the general public and advocacy organizations to hold them accountable for the spread of inaccurate or incomplete information about the overwhelming threat the factory farming industry poses to public health and the stability of the global food supply chain – before the next virus hits.

Q: What is Sentient Media?

Sentient Media is a non-profit journalism outlet reporting on the costs and the causes of industrial agriculture. We believe that by shining a light on stories that encourage the general public to start considering the nuances of animal lives, we create transparency and ultimately change.

Alongside our own reporting, we also work with a team of writers in our Fellowship Program, giving them the tools and mentorship to get their articles placed in a variety of different publications. This year, we’ve been published in The Times, Wired, The Guardian and USA Today, to name a few.

Q: What is Sentient Media’s mission?

Our mission is to increase public awareness of key issues that matter to everyone: the welfare of all sentient beings, the health of our planet, and the health and longevity of our species.

We believe in the power of investigative journalism and increased media coverage to create transparency around non-human animal lives and the impact of animal agriculture on our planetary crisis.

Farmed animals are a core focus for our reporting, as their rights and welfare are severely neglected in proportion to the numbers suffering and the negative impact of animal agriculture on the environment.