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Cecil the Lion in the British media – the pride and prejudice of the press




When US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel shed tears on his TV show about the killing of a lion who had been nicknamed Cecil, he helped unleash a storm of media coverage, social media response (including threats of death and violence against the hunter) and comment that shed an interesting light on both media coverage of wildlife and conservation issues but also the nature of media influencing of public opinion. As a BBC World Service journalist for 28 years and now a professor of journalism, I viewed the media output with interest and some alarm at the apparent ignoring of basic journalistic methods and principles and in so doing creating a groundswell of protest but also demands for law changes and action by airlines regarding their relationship with the legal hunting industry. It masked serious debates about the best approaches to conservation. But, as this paper sets out, it both distorted the debates but started important new ones that could have long-term effects for lion conservation.


The killing of the lion, which had been named Cecil by researchers, in Zimbabwe by an American dentist in July 2015, led to media coverage of an unprecedented nature. As David Macdonald of WildCRU, which was studying the lion and his pride, wrote, the media hits on the story were greater than for any previous conservation story in living memory. But the tone and content of the stories was also as important as the scale.  The use of language was hyperbolic, the attention to detail poor and the use of sources fell outside what is normally considered good journalistic practice. This study analyses the coverage of the story in the British media and the likely effects for the understanding of lion conservation and wildlife in general.  The study looks at the way that the coverage of the killing of the lion represented a media feeding frenzy generating a burst of moral outrage. The silver lining is that it may have sparked a useful debate on the relationship between conservation, hunting and lion survival which could have constructive consequences for the future of the African lion.


Keywords: Lion; Cecil; Walter Palmer; Zimbabwe; Hwange; trophy hunting; lion conservation; media; WildCRU.