I couldn’t help but notice some of the reports that were coming out of the recent American Farm Bureau meeting in San Antonio on how journalists cover agriculture in the United States. It was an interesting panel discussion consisting of Alan Bjerga of Bloomberg News, Lynn Brezosky of the San Antonio Express-New and Jerry Hagstrom of the Washington-based Hagstrom Report. You couldn’t find a more diverse group of journalists, but each panelist brought an interesting perspective on how the media covers agriculture.
Hagstrom had one of the best comments when he told farmers “not to sound angry when you’re talking to the media.” He said it would help if farmers took a greater interest in why the reporter asked the question. That’s actually good advice, but it’s also understandable when farmers get angry when they are misquoted by the mainstream media. Nothing is worse for a farmer than being betrayed by a reporter who takes comments out of context and changes the thrust of a story. True, it’s better when cooler heads prevail, and it’s always good when a farmer can come across as a professional who respects other opinions. But I also understand the farmer’s frustration.
This discussion can go on for a long time, but there is a distinction that has to be made here. Mainstream media who don’t have much knowledge of agriculture should be encouraged to work with the farmer to make sure they understand the facts and can publish an accurate and balanced story. Nothing enhances the farmer-media relationship more than mutual trust, but it has to be a two-way street for it to work. Cooperation and honest dialogue should be on both sides.
Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, and there definitely are lessons to be learned here. The ag sector is in a never-ending battle to educate the media and Congress every year on everything from farm policy to why folks shouldn’t freak out over genetically modified food. Sometimes it can become frustrating when it appears that no matter how hard agriculture leaders try, the message doesn’t resonate with the media.
I have been on both sides of the fence on this. I spent 14 years as a newspaper reporter, 13 years in the National Cotton Council’s Communications department and now 14 years as editor of Cotton Farming magazine. I see all points of view. And I don’t mind telling you that agriculture simply has to keep fighting the good fight. It needs to strategize and find new ways to bridge the “communications gap” with the mainstream media. It can be frustrating when a major daily newspaper doesn’t understand the nuances of a Farm Bill or any kind of farm policy debate. Thankfully, the ag media does an excellent job of communicating the farmer’s message. But sometimes our message doesn’t reach the general public that has no clue where his food or fiber really came from.
Too much is at stake for farmers to retreat and give up in trying to deal with the media. They have to keep trying.