Monday, February 24, 2014

Lights, Camera, Conservation: How the Media Influences Our Perception of Endangered Species

By: Elise Gilchrist

            The media has an almost constant influence on our lives. Each day we are berated by countless ads, news headlines, and social media updates. Even living in a somewhat remote part of Thailand, I encounter more media that I can consciously handle.  With the media playing an ever-increasing role in our decision-making, what sort of effect does it have on the conservation of wildlife and our perspectives on endangered species?
            A study by Ross, Vreeman, and Lonsdorf (2011) investigated whether misrepresentations of chimpanzees in the media could result in detrimental attitudes about their conservation status. To test this hypothesis the authors conducted a survey of people’s responses to photographs of a chimpanzee in different conditions. The chimpanzee was featured on different backgrounds, including an artificial office setting as well as a more natural habitat. The chimps were also shown either wearing human clothing (eg. a t-shirt) or not, and standing next to a human or alone. The results were striking: the researchers found that the public was less likely to think chimpanzees are as endangered as other great apes when the chimpanzee was standing next to a human. This study was the first empirical investigation into how inaccurate media representations of endangered species may affect public perceptions. Researchers proposed that this effect might be caused by viewing images of animals next to humans. In other words, seeing a chimp next to a human might lead the viewer to believe that such direct associations are both common and safe, which is inconsistent with how the viewer thinks an interaction with a rare species would be.

Sample images provided to survey respondents. 
(Ross, SR, VM Vreeman and EV Lonsdorf (2011). Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets. PLoS ONE, 6(7)

            The study has implications across many media outlets. From animals portrayed in advertisements to images of scientists photographed with their study species, including famous conservationists like Jane Goodall, all of these images may be impacting the attitude of the general public toward conservation. A recent wildlife related Instagram scandal, involving famous musical artist Rihanna, got quite a bit of attention. Last September, Rihanna visited Thailand and posted a photo to Instagram of her holding an endangered primate called a slow loris. At numerous tourist destinations in Thailand, visitors can pay to take photos with endangered species like the slow loris, gibbons, and Asian elephants. Even though this photo led to the arrest of two men who were illegally selling endangered primates in the area, in the long-term this photo may do more harm than good. When fans see an influential pop star cuddling an endangered species it is reasonable to believe that it will have the same effect as portraying a chimpanzee alongside a human. A photo like Rihanna’s could easily convince someone that the slow loris cannot possibly be endangered.

Rihanna's Instagram photo of her holding a slow loris.

            From these stories, the media appears to be very bad for endangered species and threatened environments, but this may not be true in every case. In fact, I grew up watching Discovery channel and Animal Planet, which acted as portals to transport me into worlds beyond my backyard. I might never have considered moving to Thailand to try and protect Asian elephants had I not grown up watching nature documentaries that brought elephants into my living room. There are many people in this world that may never have opportunities to see endangered species in the wild, but they may have the means to watch scenes of pristine environments from the comforts of their own homes.
            The social influence of the media has never been greater due to how accessible technology makes it today. There are huge errors that can be made in the portrayal of endangered species on these outlets, but there is also great opportunity for garnering support for conservation. With strategic use of media, conservation groups can access support from people half way around the world from their project sites. As technology makes the world smaller and more accessible, it is important to be cognizant of the influence a single photo can make on the planet’s wildlife.

Ross, SR, VM Vreeman and EV Lonsdorf (2011). Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets. PLoS ONE, 6(7)


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