Impact of Media on Public Perceptions of Wildlife

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January 01, 2016

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For many people, media outlets can be a key source of information regarding science topics, and specifically topics in animals and conservation. Research indicates that more positive feelings towards animals can result in better treatment (Hemsworth 2003) and public policy in conservation is impacted by attitudes and opinions (Kirkwood & Hubrecht 2001). Thus, understanding this potential impact is a critical question.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Research does indicate that how an animals and conservation issues are portrayed in the media can affect an individual’s views, though at times with conflicting information. Serpell (2004) suggests that televised stories of animals builds familiarity on the part of the public which in turn can promote more positive feelings. To the contrary, Birney found children may have inaccurate views of how frequently specific behaviors (i.e. hunting) occur due to how these behaviors may be emphasized within films and television (1995) and Fawcett found that young children often confused having viewed animals on television or through movies as having ‘seen’ them in their real life (2002).

Images of Animals and Impact on Public Perception of Wildlife and Conservation Issues

Ross et. al. (2008) conducted a survey about public knowledge of the endangered status of great apes. While the study participants easily identified gorillas (95%) and orangutans (91%) as endangered, fewer (66%) attributed this label to chimpanzees. When asked to elaborate on their answers, the researchers found that the public most commonly cited they did not feel chimpanzees were in jeopardy due to their common presence in commercials and films. Schroepfer, Rosati, Chartrand, and Hare (2011) also found through their research that how chimpanzees were displayed in media led to subject misunderstanding on conservation status of these animals.

In a follow up study, research demonstrated that when a photograph of a chimpanzee was digitally altered to add a variety of backgrounds including a natural environment and in close proximity to humans, individuals who were exposed to images with the chimpanzee in close contact with humans were more likely to label chimpanzees as appropriate pets (Ross, Vreeman, & Lonsdorf, 2011).  When exotic animals are kept inappropriately as pets, harm can befall both owners and animals, leading many professional organizations (i.e. Association of Zoos and Aquariums, International Primatological Society, American Veterinary Medical Association) to issue position statements against ownership of wild animals.

In addition to what is portrayed in the media, how it is portrayed, and what is not portrayed has also been highlighted as problematic. Snaddon, Turner, and Foster (2008) suggest that public communication efforts such as media outlets can better support the public in understanding the important role of lesser known animals such as insects in a healthy environment. Bouse (2003) raises the concern that the proximity and anthropomorphic narrative of nature films might be comprising accurate understanding of wildlife topics.

Directions for Future Research 

While it is established that the media does influence public perception of animals, other factors ranging from historic tales to education level of subjects has also been shown to influence how positively someone views a species (Kellert, 1985). The need for further research in this area is clear, both as related to new forms of media as well as at a species-specific level to complement the work done thus far.


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Ross, S.R., Lukas, K.E., Lonsdorf, E.V., Stoinski, T.S., Hare, B., Shumaker, R. and Goodall, J. 2008. Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees. Science, 319: 1487. Retrieved from et al 2008.pdf

Ross, SR, Vreeman, VM, Lonsdorf, EV. (2011). Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets. PLoS ONE 6(7): e22050. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022050. Retrieved from

Schroepfer KK, Rosati AG, Chartrand T, Hare B, (2011). Use of “Entertainment” Chimpanzees in Commercials Distorts Public Perception Regarding Their Conservation Status. PLoS ONE 6(10): e26048. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026048 Retrieved from

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