University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign | Sage Journals

After seeing how many people responded to a few cat stories in The New York Times, University of Illinois journalism professor Matthew Ehrlich dug into the digital archives, Craig Chamberlain reported Tuesday for the University's news service.

Ehrlich found a lot of cat stories.

Given the way that “cute cat videos” had been vilified by critics, Ehrlich got curious about the extent of cat stories over the years in the “self-consciously serious” Times.

He did a ProQuest search of the paper’s digital archive for references to cats in story subjects, titles and headlines, and found more than 2,300 items over 140 years, starting in the 1870s. After sifting out stories that were redundant or of marginal interest, he had nearly 700 stories that would become the focus of his study.

From the abstract:

This article critically examines the Times’ cat tales in the context of the cultural history of journalism and the academic study of human–animal relations, also known as anthrozoology. Trends and themes in the coverage indicate that cats have been used and portrayed as commodities, heroes, villains, victims, women’s best friends, and urban symbols. The stories demonstrate how and why animal news should be taken seriously by journalism scholars. Not only does it offer insight into our evolving relationships with animals, it also provides a provocative means of thinking about where journalism has been and where it is heading.

Chamberlain reports that Ehrlich's research shows in the 1870s, the Times' coverage of cats showed the attitudes of the era, when they were seen as pests. By the 1970s, the cat stories were about the treatment of cats.

There are some journalism lessons here, too.

Ehrlich also thinks that animal news, cute and otherwise, may have lessons for the future of journalism – and the academic study of journalism – given that even “serious” newspapers have always included stories appealing to the heart as well as the head.

“Clearly, people respond very powerfully to animals. We should probably think about why people respond so powerfully to them, and the ways in which journalism can learn from that,” Ehrlich said.

Currently, the Times has Menagerie, which "explores the strange and diverse ways the human and animal worlds intersect." There's recent coverage of a cat cafe in the N.Y./Region section, coverage of a court case about a man who kicked a cat (and it was recorded,) and from The New York Times Magazine, "Lessons From a Master Cat Photographer." Walter Chandoha, that master cat photographer, also didn't just start shooting pictures of cats.

Previously (and totally related, see the first sentence) How much does BuzzFeed write about cats, anyway?

Stock photo cat.
Stock photo cat.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Urbana-Champaign. It has been corrected.