Journalistic Ethics and Outdoor Cats

Melissa farlow feral cats ng 2013

Journalists are not devoid of opinions, insights and political commitments. Sometimes those serve to bring out salient features of a story, and call our attention to underserved issues. This is for the good and we should embrace a range of perspectives in our journalists for the sake of an informed democracy.

Yet amongst the principles of journalistic ethics is one that enjoins writers and editors from invidious bias in their reporting. Generally speaking, journalistic ethics in news reporting is summarized by such terms as accuracy, balance, fairness, objectivity, and truthfulness.

Unfortunately, the more reporting I read on outdoor cats, the more I see these criteria being routinely ignored. A case in point is a set of articles from Jayml Helmbuch, a writer at TreeHugger.

Helmbuch recently reported on a study that used GPS to map the time-space geography of outdoor cats. The study is being conducted by Alan Wilson, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College in England. He gives a popular write up of his work in the BBC’s Science and Environment section.

In her opening paragraph, Helmbuch sets the rhetorical tone that pervades the article:

About a year ago, we reported on new KittyCam technology that uncovered just how much wildlife our house cats kill. Turns out they’re murderous little buggers. It was revealing to find out that 30% of outdoor cats capture and kill prey, with an average of 2.1 kills a week — and that owners see less than one-quarter of the kills their cats make. It was eye-opening to see just how deadly house cats are to wildlife and what kinds of problems that may cause. But would knowing where cats go and how they move also be enlightening? One time [sic] of scientists thinks, Absolutely!

And she concludes:

With information like this, we may be able to learn more about cats’ patterns of movement and, importantly, how local wildlife can be protected from the clutches of roaming house cats. Cats are, after all, a number one enemy of birds.

Rhetoric like “murderous little buggers” and “number one enemy” may make the article more hip to some readers, but it does precious little to convey the actual complexity of the human-cat-biodiversity triad. Unfortunately, it is also part of a pattern. A look at her previous article on KittyCam technology evinces such sober and balanced phrases as “lap-sized lions that kill an untold number of birds”, “the slaughter…going on in [cat owner’s] own yards”, and “how murderous our fluffy little bags of fur really are”.

Professional environmental journalism is in sharp decline in North America. The closing of the environmental desk at the New York Times exemplifies this. Accompanying this is the Foxification of broadcast and online news, where partisan commentators masquerade as journalists while repeating and amplifying the talking points of vested interest groups. I see this routinely in reporting on outdoor cats. It seems that journalists need not be deeply informed about animal welfare, environmental policy, wildlife management, and how these apply to outdoor cat issues. They simply need to resummarize tendentious press releases, policy statements, or scholarly abstracts, as if these constituted an unmediated truth. The frequent result is inflammatory and inaccurate psuedo-news.

To be fair, Heimbuch is in good company. I first became aware of such ethical failures while reading an article in Mother Jones by senior editor Kiera Butler. In Are Cats Bad for the Environment Butler presents an entirely one-sided account, announcing “she’s on the bird’s side” (as if this was ever a simple black and white issue), and to my ear, sidles up towards implying it is better to let feral cats starve. And let us not forget the more recent case of Ted Williams who was briefly relieved from his writing post at Audubon for casually recommending that the public poison outdoor cats illegally.

Lets get back to the cat studies. In contrast to the lurid spin produced by Helmbuch, what makes the kitty cam and GPS studies interesting is how they complicate the connection between cats and biodiversity. According to these studies, most cats laze about, visit human neighbours for food, and do not stray far from home. Only a minority hunt (about 30%), something dependent on weather and other factors not yet well understood (e.g. age, disposition, locale). Speculation about the impact of outdoor cats rarely takes such factors into account, and routinely overgeneralizes from small field and island biogeography case studies — a no-no of scientific research design. It is not that outdoor cats cannot have a negative impact on native wildlife, but when and where this occurs is a far from settled question.

The sensationalist tone adopted by some journalists feeds a crisis mentality which generates proposals to kill our way back to biodiversity. Many environmentalists insist that the only solution is to eliminate cats with a preference for traditional lethal management — hunting, trapping, and poisoning, or alternatively trapping and euthanasia. A good illustration of this is Gareth Morgan’s Cats to Go campaign in New Zealand.

Feeding this frenzy sidesteps the unavoidable ethical questions. Scapegoating cats for a situation of human making is bad ethics, bad journalism, and bad public policy. We need to find ways to do right by cats and wildlife. This raises questions about the use of non-lethal measures to help solve the problem over the long run. A portfolio of integrated approaches including trap-neuter-return, sanctuaries, mandatory spay and neuter, and felonizing animal abandonment are some of the likely solutions. Lethal measures will sometimes be necessary to protect critical ecological values. They are ineffective and immoral, however, when used indiscriminately.

Readers wanting a more sober assessment than found in the journalistic account cited here should look to the materials that were produced at the international Outdoor Cat conference, held in Los Angeles during December of 2012. You can find the consensus statement from this conference along with relevant links here,

Clearly journalists need to be educated on issues involving outdoor cats and biodiversity. Equally important, they need reflect on how their own moral beliefs influence their reporting on this and other issues. Journalists do not simply report the news (as in relay events). They respond to and help shape public opinion and public policy. The failure of journalistic ethics with respect to outdoor cats amongst some reporters should be a concern to all of us concerned with creating a more humane and sustainable world.

PS: As so often happens with this issue, a far shorter comment to Helmbuch’s article was censored by TreeHugger.

Image: Melissa Farlow. 2013. Writer’s Call to Kill Feral Cats Sparks Outcry. National Geographic News.

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4 Responses to Journalistic Ethics and Outdoor Cats

  1. William Lynn says:

    “Crazy cat ladies” and “respected scientists”. Hmm…. Sounds like you have your biases clearly lined up and identified. What I’m suggesting here, however, is that you and others step beyond your biases and take a more open-minded approach to understanding both the science and ethics of the issue. It is not as simple as you seem to think.

  2. Joann Lindenmayer says:


    Wonderful piece but I’m missing the context. Do any of these publications, with which you are far more familiar than am I, publish opposing views such as yours? And what is the role of not only the journalist, but the journal’s editorial board in ensuring that journalistic pieces such as Helmbuch’s are countered with opposing, or broader views? Can you comment?

    • William Lynn says:

      Hello Joann,

      I cannot answer that with accuracy. It would make an interesting study for one of our students in communication or media studies. My impression is that there are far more news articles uncritically reporting that cats threaten biodiversity. Moreover, such views are often coded as “science” and “fact”. Occassionally, there is an oppositional voice from the TNR community, but that is coded as “opinion” and “emotional”. Views that call into question the science itself, or do not fit into a black/white dichotomy are simply ignored by the media.


  3. Michael says:

    You call it “balance”, but I have a problem when journalists give as much credence to crazy cat ladies as they do to respected scientists citing peer-reviewed literature. Feral cats are a major environmental problem and you have trivialized the situation.

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