12 min read

A "Graphic Violence" We Must Confront

The day that Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur entered a factory farm to take pictures of the pigs inside, she knew the images she took were inherently violent. They were of hour-old piglets bathing in their mother's feces, piles of dead foetuses, and of traumatized sows so large they could not move in their small gestation crates.

What she didn't expect, however, was that after publishing the pictures on Facebook two weeks ago and having them be shared by 8,500 people, the website's administration would advise her that the pictures were under review and risked being removed from the site because they were flagged for "graphic violence" by other users.

There has been much discussion and debate between journalists lately about the ethics of censorship and whether it should be justified in certain cases.

The debate was recently fuelled by the string of beheading videos published on social media sites by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Most media outlets have decided not to show the videos, which they qualify as propaganda films that aim to attract new recruits and to intimidate. Even LiveLeak, who is renowned for aggregating and publishing even the most gruesome of videos has decided to stop publishing ISIS beheading videos.

Then there was the release of the Edward Snowden documentary, Citizenfour. Whether or not it was ethically right for the media to publish Snowden's revelations containing confidential information about U.S. surveillance programs is still a matter of controversy.

Both the ISIS videos and the National Security Agency's classified intelligence are kept private for a variety of reasons, but a major one is that their disclosures could threaten national security. For many, this justifies their censorship. In the case of the factory-farming industry – a legal, multi-billion dollar industry that the vast majority of the population supports daily with their buying power and that deals with the lives of sentient beings − censorship of its practices should never be justified.

"The images I shot at the farm do depict violence," McArthur admits, "but hunting photos and images of animals used in entertainment are allowed on Facebook.

"What this all shows is what sort of violence is socially acceptable and which isn't. If these images are deemed graphically violent, shouldn't images of bacon also be?"

McArthur is the author of We Animals and publishes a blog with the same name. She was also the subject of the 2013 documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine. Throughout her career as a photojournalist who covers animal welfare issues, McArthur says she has faced censorship on a regular basis:

"Art and photo directors have almost unanimously agreed that [my] work is good and important, but what I keep hearing is that editors need to protect their audience and I suspect as well that they can't risk offending industries who spend a lot on ads."

The fact that journalists who cover animal abuse in factory farms are often systematically censored demonstrates that freedom of the press is indeed restricted and that the mainstream media is uncomfortable reporting on unethical farming practices that the majority of their audiences support as consumers. Ultimately, this censorship serves society's power interests, whether it is intentional or not.

"I think we all know that popular media is self-interested, owned by big companies with corporate interests that won't jeopardize losing readers and that it has the ‘freedom' to report as conservatively as it wants," says McArthur. However, she admits that there are a variety of barriers when it comes to publishing issues about animal cruelty. These barriers can be historical, cultural, economic and psychological:

"Images of animal cruelty are confronting because I think we are all compassionate and don't want to see pain inflicted on the innocent. To confront the cruelty is to confront ourselves and our complicity in that cruelty."

London-based Article 19 is a human rights organization whose mission is to defend and promote freedom of expression and information all over the globe. According to the organization's website, pre-publication censorship (when censorship is imposed on information before the delivery of the information even takes place) is justified in only specific and rare cases when "a publication threatens grave harm, such as loss of life or serious harm to health, safety or the environment." Clearly, images of animal cruelty in factory farming practices do not meet these criteria.

Perhaps the most explicit example of abusive pre-publication censorship in regards to animal-rights journalism are the anti-whistleblower Ag-gag laws that exist in the U.S. states of Iowa and Utah. The laws prohibit the filming of undercover videos that depict animal cruelty in farming practices.

Lucas Solowey, who has worked with many animal-rights organizations including Mercy for Animals (MFA) − a North American organization that is renowned for its undercover investigations and videos of abuse in the farming industry − feels that the Ag-gag bills are extremely controversial and problematic. "If the industry has nothing to hide, they should support a move to allow the public and organizations to witness what takes place," he says. Many non-profit organizations, media organizations and civil liberty associations have been fighting the Ag-gag bills in the courts and have succeeded in defeating them in many states, including Illinois and Florida.

In Canada, however, Solowey was surprised by the media's willingness to cover MFA's undercover investigations of factory farms in British Columbia and Quebec. Because undercover animal cruelty investigations were uncommon in the country at the time MFA Canada was launched, media outlets would compete to obtain exclusivity and to be the first to air the stories, he says.

The majority of Canadian media outlets published MFA's stories in a positive light, although some were more cautious, preferring not to show graphic content. Right-leaning outlets like Sun Media, however, would often portray the activists as radical or extreme, he says. "In the case of the ‘EggMcMisery' campaign, the majority of media coverage was positive," Solowey explains, "however, once McDonald's started applying pressure on the media and threatening legal action, the coverage shifted to more neutral or negative."

MFA's investigations have had an impact on the farming industry. One investigation in particular helped convince the Retail Council of Canada to support a ban on the use of gestation crates in industrial pig farms. Furthermore, the National Farm Animal Care Council has since issued guidelines for phasing out use of the crates.

"In the interest of animal welfare, public health and transparency, industry should broadcast CCTV footage on the internet for all to see," Solowey believes. "However, the industry clearly has too much to hide and is fearful of losing profit. Egregious cruelties take place on factory farms that would cause the average consumer to lose their appetites if witnessed," he adds.

Paul McCartney once said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." The mainstream media knows this, and in a effort to avoid alienating their audience, advertisers and/or the factory farming industry itself, often do their part to make sure the walls remain as opaque as possible.

*Photos courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur