This section will highlight some tips, lessons and potential pitfalls in initiating and responding to industry coverage - particularly by animal rights groups. Below, we'll start with television.
Tips for TV
It is the stuff of nightmares. The images are brutal, bloody, emotive and effective. These are films of animal life being taken, legally and illegally, ''animal snuff films'', footage that is sometimes real, sometimes staged.
From the unfamiliar world of medical experimentation done for both animal and human benefit to the routine slaughter of cattle for steak to the molting of egg-laying hens, the images are often not what they appear to be. Animal ''snuff'' films, which chronicle the death-throes of animals, are big business today with most of the large animal-rights groups maintaining a library.
Craig Van Note of Monitor Consortium, a Washington DC-based consortium of 30-plus animal rights groups (including the Animal Protection Institute, the Animal Welfare Institute, Earth Island Institute, Fund for Animals, Greenpeace, Humane Society International, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare), stated in National Fisherman Magazine, ''No doubt about it, videotape is the most powerful weapon we have to fight enemies of the earth.''
As with any weapon, videotape too can be misused. The media, constantly in need of images, can be deceived into using misleading footage. At Animal Rights 2004, an annual meeting of activists, an animal rights activist charged with multiple federal charges of conspiracy to terrorize and interstate stalking, praised People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) because ''they more than any other organization seem to understand that the media is immature, they are stupid, they are corrupt, they are horny, and they run by a policy that if it bleeds, it leads.''
Believe What You See?
Anyone who has ever visited Universal Studios or Disneyland knows that what we see on film is manipulated and manufactured, oftentimes fantasy. Sometimes, unfortunately, images presented as reality, or ''documentary''-style, filmmaking are also manipulated for political and financial reasons. Staged footage of illegal practices can be used for political and financial gain or to defame whole industries. Sometimes what we see is just hate propaganda.
A snip of film showing muscle spasms in a dead harpooned whale can fool an inexperienced viewer into thinking the animal is still alive, and defame all whalers in the process. Footage of chickens being slaughtered may be jarring to people unfamiliar with the correct practices, because there is no context to explain why these people do what they do. Or a movie in which Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) improves his boxing skills in a slaughterhouse might convince the people of India - where certain cattle are revered--that Americans are barbarians, when all it actually shows are Rocky's resolve and that Americans eat beef.
The activist industry has discovered that presenting images out of context, or simply faking them, can be a lucrative business. Don't allow yourself to be the promoter of someone else's mistruths.
Real or Staged?
The media are often approached by activists claiming to have gone ''underground'', putting their lives at risk, to produce highly edited videos of alleged animal abuse. What these activists typically fail to provide, however, is key information such as what happened where and when, and who exactly was involved. Often, they cannot provide this information for the simple reason that they are the people who staged the abuse.
Carefully examine your network's and your station's policy on using footage of animal suffering from outside sources. Do you require that sources provide uncut footage with unedited sound, or do you accept edited clips? If the footage shows people committing an illegal act, do you require that the people be identified, if only for your own records? And do you require that the source provide the time and location of the film?
Be wary of covering a breaking story, especially if it involves something or someone bleeding. Make sure you tell both sides of the story. Your viewers deserve the truth.
The media environment is more competitive than ever, and it is now within the reach of nearly anyone to buy a cheap video camera and stage whatever horror scene he or she wishes.
The only way the media can protect the public from unscrupulous operators who stage scenes of animal abuse is to ensure they are not tricked themselves. To this end, we recommend that media:
- Ask for the full, uncut film footage, with sound. Any individual or group offering video but unwilling to meet this requirement is most likely hiding something.
- Ask that all people in the film be identified by name.
- Require that the filmmaker and crew provide signed statements swearing that all images shown in the footage are real, not staged.
- Require sworn statements from the filmmaker and crew in the case of footage of illegal activities, attesting to the time, place and other circumstances relating to the illegal activity.
Exposing real illegalities is an important part of the media's job and--because much of the public is more skeptical than ever--working from solidly verifiable information is more critical than ever.
Television stations, newspapers or magazines that use images of cruelty without ascertaining that they are genuine, must accept responsibility for misleading the public if the images turn out to be staged. If media doesn't accept this responsibility, it risks its greatest asset, trust.