In media coverage of wildlife crime, ‘feedback loops’ entrench biases: study

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  • A new study on the reliability of media coverage of the illegal wildlife trade in Nepal has found that, while helpful, media reports cover only a small fraction of seizures and mainly focus on large charismatic species .
  • Researchers say wildlife reporting practices create “feedback loops” that can reinforce biases and further strengthen official responses to wildlife crime
  • To counter this trend, the researchers propose to educate journalists about how their reporting can influence public opinion and official responses to wildlife crime.

KATHMANDU – Media reports on wildlife crime in Nepal cover only a small fraction of the trade in the country, with a particular focus on charismatic protected species such as tigers, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Oxford examined wildlife crime coverage in three daily newspapers in Nepal between 2005 and 2017, as well as official seizure reports and enforcement actions.

Kumar Paudel of the NGO Greenhood Nepal, co-author of the article, said that although media reports provided an indication of trends and cash seized, journalists reported only a fraction of the cases of seizures related to the illegal wildlife trade.

“Seizures related to charismatic protected species such as rhinos and tigers were the most reported, seizures involving tigers were the most likely to be reported,” he said.

According to the newspaper, in the case of Kathmandu district, almost 78% of seizures went unreported. Seizures of charismatic and protected species were reported more frequently and seizure reports involving tigers were the most likely to be covered.

Nepal, due to its rich biological diversity, is home to some of the most prized wild animals and plants in the world. Its location between China and India, the largest markets for legal and illegal wildlife products, has made it a source as well as a transit country for the multi-billion dollar trade in flora and fauna. wild fauna.

“The media plays a crucial role in setting the conservation agenda,” says Paudel. “In the context of wildlife trafficking and its parts, media reports are all the more important as they serve as a source of information for national and international authorities. [research].”

“We could attribute these biases to the level of interest of editors and journalists in the wildlife trade or their access to information on seizures, the greater attention given to certain species than others and the ’emphasis on other competing reporting,” he added.

According to Dr Diogo Verissimo, a researcher at the Oxford Martin Illegal Wildlife Trade Program, who is also a co-author of the study, the exposure of wildlife crime, the official reaction to it and the public opinion created by it creates a “feedback”. loop” that often reinforces existing approaches to solving the problem.

“Until recently only a few people knew about pangolins and the illegal trade in their scales,” he said. “But over the past few years, the issue has received a lot of media attention. This has been good in the case of pangolins because people are more aware of it. In this case, we see a positive feedback loop.

However, the effect of the media on awareness and responses to the wildlife trade is not always so positive, he adds. In Nepal, for example, the focus on megafauna such as tigers and rhinos has led the public and policy makers to see them as the most traded and endangered species, leading officials to give priority to training and policies relating to the rhinoceros and tiger horn trade. rooms.

“There are many other wildlife products, such as orchids and medicinal plants, which are traded in large volumes, but are not prioritized,” says Paudel.

Such “feedback loops” can still influence future funding and scientific research, the paper notes, because the reliance on reported seizures means more emphasis is placed on species to which authorities are devoting resources.

Despite these drawbacks, media reports are likely to remain an important tool for conservationists studying the illegal wildlife trade, although caution should be exercised when drawing broader conclusions, the authors noted. .

The study also noted that the transition from traditional media in many countries meant that results were limited, adding that the shift to social media would change people’s perception of commerce.

“For example, the competition for page space or time that affects print and broadcast media may ease, so that more seizure reports can come online. However, it may also be that a reduction in professional staff reduces the focus of investigations on particular issues, so that even if more material is present, the prominence of particular items in online media may be driven more by social media trends and public concern,” the newspaper said.

For Verissimo, the main takeaway for journalists reporting wildlife crime is that they need to be more aware of the implications of their work.

“I think it’s important for media professionals to recognize that they play an important role in the feedback loop. And if we have a negative feedback loop, they’re really in a prime position to reverse that and turn that into a positive feedback loop.

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Banner Image: A great one-horned rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Photo by Dhilung Kirat via Flickr.

Quotes

Paudel K, Hinsley A, Veríssimo D, Milner-Gulland E. Assessing the reliability of media reports for collecting information on illegal wildlife trade seizures. Peer J. 5 Apr 2022; 10:e13156. doi: 10.7717/peerj.13156.

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