The Correction: How the Media Failed Freya the Walrus

In this month's Correction, we look at the media's coverage of Freya the Walrus and Alaskan snow crabs, plus the beef industry sponsors Climate Week NYC.


Analysis Correction

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Animal euthanasia is supposed to be an act of mercy. When animals are suffering from illness or injury and their quality of life is not going to improve, humans may opt for euthanasia to relieve their suffering in a way that kills them as painlessly as possible. We humans tend to think about euthanasia for our pets but there are instances when it can be appropriate for wild animals too. If you read the media coverage of Freya the walrus — shot dead by Norwegian authorities in August — you might believe her case was one such example. It wasn’t.

Most media reporting on the killing uncritically repeated the fishing ministry’s statement that Freya was euthanized. The Guardian/Agence France-Presse, Euronews, CNN, the Independent and NPR were among the many outlets that used the word, even though Freya was neither ill nor injured nor suffering in any way. Rather, she was killed, according to Norways’ Directorate of Fisheries, on the grounds that she had become too much of an attraction to people who would not heed warnings to keep their distance from her and was now considered a “continued threat to human safety.”

While some newspapers also reported on the criticism of the decision to kill Freya, they failed to question or avoid — as this New York Times piece did, in a rare exception — the language used by the fishing ministry. This includes the implications of its statement in a news release that the possibility of relocating Freya was considered “not a viable option” because of “the extensive complexity of such an operation.” As Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson wrote in a recent article, “Clearly a cost-benefit analysis was done, and it was concluded that it would just be too difficult to move Freya elsewhere.” Freya’s life didn’t just rank lower than the welfare of humans willingly putting themselves in harm’s way, but lower even than some logistical effort and expense from the authorities. In light of this, it isn’t just incorrect to say she was euthanized, it is arguably a form of humane-washing

Worse still, the fisheries ministry has so far refused to release any further details about Freya’s killing, including how the decision was made and why other measures, such as fining people who got too close, weren’t tried first. Some critics have suggested that the action was taken to protect the fishing and whaling industries of Norway from the public developing too much sympathy for marine mammals, including the seals who are legally hunted in Norway and routinely killed by fish farming companies. I don’t expect reporters to have speculated on any potentially hidden motives for Freya’s killing, but there could have been more effort to highlight what information was missing or being withheld, as well as that the fisheries ministry is primarily concerned with managing “marine resources” and not with wild animal welfare.

Freya’s death is just one clear example of how the media is often complicit in perpetuating the myths told about killing animals. “Euthanize,” “cull,” “depopulate,” and “humanely slaughter” — these euphemistic terms most frequently appear in articles on the deaths of farmed animals, but also wild animals killed in the interests of the meat, dairy and aquaculture industries. They hide the usually brutal realities of slaughterhouses and mass killings carried out for reasons such as stopping disease spread or reducing competition for resources like grazing land. They make these killings sound like something perhaps regrettable, but definitely unavoidable, rather than the outcome of our choices. 

In replicating this pattern of reporting in the case of Freya, the media failed her.

– Claire Hamlett, Associate Editor

Suggested Edits

Several other stories published in the past month have caught our eye as in need of correcting.

Washington Post: Alaska’s Snow Crabs Have Disappeared. Where They Went Is a Mystery Climate Change Is Likely to Blame.

What will we mourn when a species is wiped out by climate change? Its uniqueness, its special place in an ecosystem, its contribution to the richness of life on Earth? Or its use as a luxury food item? Judging from a recent article in the Washington Post, for some people it’ll be the latter.

A crash in the population of snow crabs in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast is likely due to climate change, journalist Laura Reiley reported recently in the Washington Post – only to then focus on the decline of “this luxury seafood item.” The main concern, not just for those in the fishing industry, but for marine biologists too, is apparently only about what the impacts of climate change on the crabs’ numbers means for fisheries.

We are accustomed to wild marine animals being described primarily as “seafood,” a resource for human use. In the global north, we worry about people in the global south harvesting or poaching wild animals and how it harms wildlife populations, but we accept the exact same thing happening on a much vaster scale in the oceans. This not only causes suffering to trillions of animals, but as Sentient Media contributor Spencer Roberts pointed out in an article for Wired, we risk destabilizing the crucial ecological and climate functions of the ocean if we value marine life “simply as a source of food.” 

Yet Reiley’s article fails to raise these issues at all. Indeed, it fails to even consider that a demand for “luxury seafood” might itself be a problem for the climate. Reiley mentions a restaurant in Miami that flies king crabs in from Norway overnight but makes no attempt to address the obvious wastefulness of such a practice, other than a glib reference to the “gastronomic inconvenience for the one-percenters” when crab populations collapse.

The article raises legitimate concerns about the livelihoods of coastal communities with “limited economic opportunities.” But it’s possible to highlight such issues without reducing a species to nothing but its economic value.

– Claire Hamlett, Associate Editor

WIRED: Plant-Based Burgers Aren’t Denting People’s Beef Addiction Are Beginning to Displace Beef

The study behind this Wired article is published in Nature

Upon a more detailed read, I believe the article’s headline twists the narrative to tell a story, and not doing a thorough job of looking at the data.

Here is what the study says:

Dollar market share of PBMA (plant-based meat alternatives) out of all meat sales at less than 1%. (It’s a nascent category and very few people regularly buy it at this point).

About 20% of consumers purchased a PBMA at least once (fairly high trial rate), and 12% purchased a PBMA on multiple occasions (~60% repeat rate). Interestingly, after a household’s FIRST PBMA purchase, ground meat consumption did not fall. This would be expected given the high trial rate driven by curiosity and lower repeat rate. Further, if you look at repeat data, there are many light users, meaning they buy PBMA infrequently. Only 2.79% of households purchased PBMAs exclusively.

About 86% of PBMA buyers also bought ground meat. This is a blended number of trial, repeat and exclusive users, but overall shows that mixed purchasing is most common. This is a very similar number to plant-based milk consumption. Mixed use does NOT mean that the PBMA usage occasion is not displacing animal meat in a particular instance. You displace milk on occasion (coffee, smoothies, cereal) with plant-based alternatives, but you may still have both in your fridge.

However, the study DOES SHOW that PBMA buyers spent about 13% less on ground meat. The headline completely misses that.

“The average household in the full sample purchased 1.53 PBMA units (or 0.01 per week) over the two year span. Looking only at PBMA purchasing households, 7.69 units on average were purchased in two years (or 0.07 per week). Among all households, two-year expenditures on PBMAs were $6.78 ($0.07/week) and was $34.04 (or $0.33/week) for households who purchased at least one PBMA. By contrast, households spent $112.74 over the two year period on ground meat ($1.08/week). For households who purchased a PBMA, they spent $97.78 on ground meat ($0.94/week).”

“The number of ground meat units purchased was significantly lower among PBMA buyers than the full sample, which resulted in significantly lower total expenditure on ground meat options among PBMA buyers compared to non-buyers.”

Plant-based meat story is not a slam dunk given how few people have adopted this as a regular purchase, but the trend is there.

The displacement metric among the smaller share of consumers who regularly purchase BPMAs and actually replace meat-eating occasions gets muddled with the very large segment of trial and light users.

Reporting top level numbers hides the budding trend and creates the wrong impression. 

Another study provides further important context.

“When we look at PBMA spending over time, when households first purchase PBMA products, we find that households spend on average $8 on PBMA products in the first month that they first purchase PBMA. Monthly PBMA spending drops by over 75% after this initial purchase.”

The $8/mo average spend tells you that these are mostly single time / infrequent purchases. In the sample: once-only spenders represent 11%, low-percentile spenders represent 10%, medium spenders represent 5%, and high spenders represent 5%.

A better way to assess whether PBMA purchases displace meat would be to limit the study cohort to medium and high spenders on PBMAs. In their data: “households with the highest PBMA spending strength index values have slightly lower meat expenditures than other households”.

This number is further muddled by the fact that high PBMA households also have the highest income and spend more on all foods. Looking at quantity of meat purchased, not dollar amounts, would be better. My guess is that high PBMA households buy less animal meat, but probably better quality animal meat (organic, grass fed, etc).

Irina Gerry, republished from LinkedIn with permission

Special Correction Call-out 

Climate Week NYC: Choosing A Climatarian Diet: Beef as an ultimate climate-smart food Events Sponsored By the Beef Industry

This year’s Climate Week NYC summit kicks off September 19 with over 500 different events — including one hosted by beef industry lobby group the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association with the tagline “Beef as an ultimate climate-smart food.”

In fact, when food-sector climate researchers recommend a “climate-smart diet,” it’s one that’s plant-rich and low in beef consumption. 

Why is a beef industry group even allowed to participate in this important climate action summit? I assume Exxon and other fossil fuel producers would not be allowed to host a panel, as Jan Dutkiewicz tweeted, on how SUVs are the climate-smart cars of the future. On the other hand, considering a natural gas company was a sponsor of last year’s event, maybe it’s part of a larger trend in the wrong direction.

– Jenny Splitter, Managing Editor

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