If Journalism is the First Rough Draft of History, What Are Vegans Building for the Animals Today?
If it’s all just products and personalities, the animals will be sidelined from their own story.
“Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”
I heard this quote for the first time the other day, a quote that a little digging revealed is kind of a chestnut among journalists but it was the first time I’d heard it. It is often attributed to a long-ago publisher of the Washington Post, now thought to have originated with a New Republic book reviewer. Regardless of the originator, this quote has been going through my head ever since because it is so perfectly salient, putting a fine point to the importance of vegans creating a solid, strong foundation for what we write about or, in the case of opinion journalism, the importance of building a clear, persuasive argument. “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” Goosebumps.
If you think about how journalists write about veganism and animal rights in 2021 as a time capsule or guideposts for future generations trying to understand the state of things, what would be the take away? More significantly, if you believe that what we write about veganism and animal rights today will form the bedrock of how it evolves and what it evolves into, isn’t it crucial that we keep this front of mind with the stories we pitch, report on, click on and share? If we use the framework of thinking about journalism as what history becomes, wouldn’t we want to be very mindful about both our messaging and our messengers?
This brings me to another quote rattling around in my head lately: historians are fond of saying that history doesn’t repeat itself; it rhymes. To be in the driver’s seat of the future we want to build for the vegan movement and for animals, we need to be thinking today what we want to focus on and what we want to deprive of oxygen. Is the future we are building today going to manifest as one of centering people, emphasizing shallow and uncertain personal benefits and random products, or is it going to be a muscular, inclusive and dynamic movement rooted in the rich, loamy soil of social justice movements? No two people are necessarily going to see this the same way, and we certainly all shouldn’t agree with one another on how to form the bones of the history of this movement, but I would think at the very least we would want to be mindful about what we are building.
At this point, I would say that what concerns me is the journalistic focus on less substantive matters, like what leather-free shoes a certain celebrity is wearing or what new vegan sausages are on the market, not because these things don’t matter — they do — but because it is so disproportionately skewed to subjects that revolve around consumption and topical distractions. We need to be thinking about this as we build the future of veganism in the now-history so we lay the groundwork for a real movement, not a passing fancy that collapses into itself from the weight of too much surface, not enough substance.
Don’t get me wrong: I like style and light distractions, too. Not everything should be dry, heavy and dense. Where is the joy in that?
I also appreciate the perks of being vegan today, not the least of which is the reminder of how much progress has been made. I am not looking down my nose at the expanding vegan cheese market, the increased availability of quality vegan food, the ability to travel without too much worry, the much more available (and stylish) fashion options. These things are all fantastic: they improve the quality of life, help to retain vegans and draw curious folks into the fold. I am decidedly less enthused about the attention to influencers and celebrities but I also know that having a human connection to a story will generate interest among readers.
The question is, though, when we spend the majority of our focus and attention span capital on products and personalities, what — or whom — is getting lost in the process? I’m a writer in the time of the internet. I understand the importance of click drivers, and certainly exciting new products and charismatic personalities will do that, but with this emphasis, which stories are we pushing into the margins to the point of invisibility?
To the vegan and animal advocacy communities, here are some questions worth considering before pitching, writing, clicking on or sharing media adjacent to the cause: Are animals discussed at all? Is what happens to the animals we consume made more transparent and is it well-researched? If people are centered, are they solving structural problems that can also benefit the animals (such as the work of Chilis on Wheels, SÜPRMARKT, the Food Empowerment Project and A Well-Fed World) or is it focused on someone who is promoting their own brand or need for self-promotion?
We are building history for the animals in real time with our journalism. Are the animals going to be written out of it in favor of personalities and products? If so, I don’t think there will be much of a history because there won’t be a future for animals in the animal rights movement.