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How to Use the Mainstream Media to Save Hunting

How to Use the Mainstream Media to Save Hunting

When I was growing up in Michigan, most people looked forward to the hunting and fishing articles in the Detroit newspapers. The weekly TV show “Michigan Outdoors” starring Mort Neff also was extremely popular. Today positive articles about hunting are an endangered species, and those that do appear are often about controversies such as the upcoming grizzly bear hunt in Wyoming, Cecil the Lion or poaching—despite that poachers are not hunters.

What we call “news” has changed. Reporting facts has diminished and studies show that electronic media news is 10 to 17 times more negative and sensational than objective. Why? Sensationalism draws an audience and creates celebrities overnight.

There are more hunting TV shows than ever, but the shows are almost all on outdoor channels, which don’t draw the audiences of mainstream channels. With fewer hunters today, hunting is a mystery to many people, making it an easy target for criticism. So on May 16 when I logged into NPR, I was pleasantly surprised to find an article about hunting. It noted that because the number of hunters, fishermen and sport shooters is declining, the amount of money those sportsmen contribute to managing fish and wildlife is declining, which is hurting state conservation agencies.            

Good article. More people now know that according to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAMWC), sportsmen’s license fees and certain special taxes on gear fund a major share of the budgets for state wildlife agencies. While it didn’t propose immediate solutions for conserving hunting, the hunting community clearly is focused on programs that address the “Three R’s” of conserving hunting: recruitment, retention and reactivation.

Understanding that hunting is part of human nature is best learned through firsthand experience—what conservationist Aldo Leopold called the “Ecological Conscience.” There also is a practical side to hunting as a wildlife management tool.

When surveys ask hunters why they are giving up hunting, they say the most important reasons are decreased access to hunting land and the increased amount of media opposing hunting, which hinders recruitment. Recent polls show that 81 percent of Americans support ethical hunting. That’s heartening, but another recent poll found that 62 percent of the general public believes that many hunters break hunting laws, are reckless and drink to excess. Game wardens tell me that the actual statistics of hunters who behave badly are less than one percent, but in a media-driven age, negative stereotypes get air time as anti-hunters use mainstream media to sell their agenda. If 21st century hunters want to save hunting, it’s time for hunters to use mainstream media. As a former psychology professor who went on to become a writer and producer of TV and films, I think hunters must find ways to use the media to promote an understanding of the NAMWC and why hunting must be protected.

Understanding the Media’s Influence
Here are three examples revealing the media’s influence on hunting and fishing.

1. Two years after the 1992 debut of “A River Runs Through It,” there were 100,000 more fly fishermen nationwide. The number of times people went fly fishing doubled as did the fly fishing industry’s business.

2. The National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) draws millions of kids. There has never been a serious accident at a NASP event, making archery one of the safest lifelong sports. The Archery Trade Association says that TV and films have helped to recruit archers. It began when actress Geena Davis almost made the U.S. Olympic Archery Team. This was followed by the movies “Brave,” “The Lord of the Rings” and then “The Hunger Games,” where Jennifer Lawrence’s role as Katniss Evergreen portrayed archers as heroes. According to USA Archery, the sport’s Olympic-sanctioning body, its membership swelled 84 percent in the year following the latter film’s release.

3. Reality TV shows like "Duck Dynasty" and "American Hoggers" and several game warden reality TV series airing on mainstream channels reach millions and put forth an ethical, positive image of hunters and fishermen. As a co-executive producer of “Wild Justice,” the show about California game wardens that aired on the National Geographic Channel from 2010 to 2013, I’m proud that the show’s premiere set the channel’s record for docu-reality show premieres with 3.2 million viewers. What effect did the show have? In California the number of game wardens increased from 190 to 360, and nationwide there are at least eight other game warden reality shows. While these shows catch bad guys, they also portray hunters as heroes.

Food for Thought: Getting Input from Hollywood
National organizations such as the NRA and state wildlife agencies are conducting surveys and focus groups about hunting, fishing and sport shooting. I decided to conduct my own survey and reached out to friends in Hollywood to ask how Hollywood might support these sports. Following are my findings.

• Hold workshops to train TV and film screenwriters.
Federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, CIA, the military and some police departments in major cities hold special seminars for screenwriters so they are better equipped to accurately represent the work of those agencies.

The American Humane Association (AHA) currently monitors TV and film scripts and productions with animal actors. AHA and other animal rights groups also have offices in Hollywood to recruit celebrities for their causes. There is little or no outreach to Hollywood from hunting and fishing groups. If the number of hunters and fishermen is declining in part due to getting a bad rap from the media, you can’t count on screenwriters to understand these sports. Why not give them the facts, and maybe take them afield to learn to hunt and fish?  

When “Wild Justice” began airing, some Hollywood folks became interested in game wardens. Some wardens conducted ride-alongs with writers and producers. Consequently, there are three new TV shows about California game wardens in the works.

• Conduct annual contests for screenplays presenting hunting and fishing in a positive manner.
Why not conduct a national TV and film competition for scripts that portray hunting in a positive light? Submissions could come with a fee to help with judging costs. The winners would get recognition, introductions to agents and producers, and consultations with actors, writers, producers and funders.

 Launch an annual awards show for mainstream TV shows and films recognizing sportsmen’s ethics.
There are award shows for just about everything—except mainstream TV and films that convey positive images of hunting and fishing. The anti-hunting Humane Society of the United States hosts the annual Genesis Awards for TV and films that support animal rights. Why can’t sportsmen do the same? A contest could honor productions and those who made them happen and recognize those who have made significant contributions to creating a positive image for hunting and conservation. The hunting and fishing community could be engaged and vote online. Both statues and free guided outdoor trips could be awarded.

Learning from Colorado’s Success
In the late 1990s Colorado recognized the need to cultivate a better image for hunters and anglers. A coalition of hunters, anglers and conservationists working with livestock and agriculture organizations conceived the Wildlife Council, formally known as the Colorado Wildlife Management Public Education Advisory Council (WMPEAC), which was established by the Colorado legislature in 1998.

The Wildlife Council’s mission is to oversee a comprehensive media-based public information program to educate the public about the benefits of wildlife, wildlife management and wildlife-related recreational opportunities in Colorado—specifically hunting and fishing. Mission funding comes from a 75-cent surcharge per hunting and fishing license, which raises $850,000 to $950,000 annually for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The Wildlife Council began creating newspaper and billboard ads and in 2005 launched TV commercials. According to Windi Padia, the Wildlife Council’s CPW representative and treasurer, in 2010 it began researching the most effective ways to bolster sportsmen’s image. It held focus groups around the state to identify approaches for creative commercials bolstering sportsmen’s image particularly among non-sportsmen. The Council created 20 benefit statements and tested them. Pictures of families carrying guns were unacceptable to many, and messages about hunter safety and hunters as good citizens were met by skepticism. Hunters protecting communities from wild animal attacks got little support and hunting for food ranked only 16th out of the 20 by the non-sportsman audience. The most compelling appeals were the positive economic impacts of hunting to Colorado: how hunting and fishing licenses and excises taxes on equipment paid for wildlife management, and how hunting and fishing generate thousands of jobs in small towns statewide. It found that just stating the facts was not compelling enough. The research found that the most effective story lines were based on building on sportsmen’s and non-sportsmen’s shared values.  

As reported by NRAHLF.org, the Wildlife Council came up with a commercial about people in the woods hugging hunters and fishermen to thank them. “Hug-A-Hunter” and “Hug-a- Fisherman” first aired from April through September 2011 on TV stations statewide. It repeated the campaign in 2012. Windi says, “We found the level of support grew by about 30 percent and we got good feedback from hunters and other outdoor sportsmen.” New commercials are released every year.

Start considering what will sell hunting and fishing to mainstream America in your state. Inspired by Colorado’s success, Michigan now has its own program.

Creating a Fund to Invest in TV and Feature Films Supporting Hunting and Fishing
Well-made TV movies and films can be very successful for investors and sportsmen alike. Case in point: “A River Runs Through It” cost about $12 million to produce but made $43 million at the domestic box office alone. “Dances with Wolves,” which incorporates a buffalo hunt as a featured element, cost $22 million. It had a domestic gross of $184,208,848 and a global gross of $240,000,000—and won seven Oscars. Hollywood is not necessarily anti-hunting and fishing. What drives Hollywood is money. Why not invest in mainstream TV and films?

Promoting Good Hunting Material
Several thousand American outdoor writers reach millions of sportsmen and their families. If a film or TV show supporting hunting, fishing and sport shooting, urge them to review it. I recently wrote a review article about three recent falconry films for NRAHLF.org—I hope it encourages more folks to see such inspiring films. Sportsmen can help make a film or TV show a success, which counts in Hollywood. Click here to scan an article I wrote for American Hunter about some of my favorite films that have made hunting look good—as they should.

The bottom line: Sportsmen must make use of the mainstream media. As Aldo Leopold said, “The real substance of conservation lies not in the physical processes of government but in the mental processes of its citizens.”

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About the Author: James A. Swan, Ph.D., is the author of two popular books about the psychology of hunting—“In Defense of Hunting” and “The Sacred Art of Hunting.” He has reviewed films for several publications and produced a number of outdoor shows and documentaries about hunting, fishing, sport shooting and conservation. 

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