British journalist studies how the news media portrays agriculture worldwide
Anna Jones grew up on a “large” farm—about 200 acres—on the border between England and Wales, where her family raises cattle and sheep. They raise continental breeds like Limousin and Charolais.
Today, though, she’s bridging the gap between her rural upbringing and the urban media she’s chosen to work in at the BBC.
It’s the relationship between the two lifestyles that prompted her to apply for, and receive, a Nuffield Scholarship, which sponsors individuals to travel around the world researching a subject that will benefit agriculture in the United Kingdom. Her study is called “Help or Hinder? How the Mainstream Media Portrays Farming to the Public.”
Her address to the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association’s annual convention and trade show in Pierre on Nov. 28-30 isn’t her first time in the state. Her first visit was in November of 2013, when she covered winter storm Atlas for the BBC.
“The stoic strength of the ranchers in the face of such adversity will stay with me forever,” Jones said. “The fact their livelihoods had been wrecked by this storm and hardly any national media had picked up on the story sowed the seeds for my Nuffield Scholarship. I remember one rancher asking where I had travelled from. When I told him I was from England he was shocked: ‘England?’ he said, ‘We haven’t even seen our local TV station out here!’”
During that trip she met Larry Stomprud, who is now president of SDCA. She returned to South Dakota last year as part of her Nuffield Scholarship. Her father accompanied with her to satisfy his curiosity about the landscape he’d seen only on the silver screen, since he was raised on John Wayne and Western movies. “To visit the real ‘Wild West’ and the Black Hills was the ultimate adventure for him,” Jones said.
She spent a couple days on the ranch with Stomprud’s family, where she had the opportunity to help “muster” some cattle and brand some calves.
Her Nuffield Scholarship provided much wider experience than a South Dakota cattle ranch, though.
“My Nuffield Scholarship took me all over the world – from thousand acre ranches in the Midwest to one acre smallholdings in East Africa,” Jones said. “One thing that struck me is how media coverage varies between the developed and developing world. In urbanised, western countries, farmers are often on the defensive, sometimes negatively portrayed in the media as greedy villains in a corporate world of ‘Big Ag’. In Kenya, smallholder farmers (who make up 75 percent of the population) are seen as downtrodden heroes – struggling to make ends meet while providing the ultimate service to their countrymen and women. I find that very interesting – the more disconnected we become from our rural roots, and the land, the more we distrust those who feed us.”
It’s that gap that she focuses on, trying to see the issue from the point of view of the ag producers, media and consumers—all roles she understands and has experienced first-hand.
“Farmers in the UK often complain of a ‘disconnect’ between themselves and urban people; and sometimes blame negative or simply non-existent media coverage. But more than 80 percent of the UK population live in towns and cities. If we’re truly honest with ourselves – how relevant is farming to them?
“When the majority of people live and work in urban areas, it is natural and right that newspapers and news programs cover the issues most relevant to them – health, housing, education, unemployment, transport and so on. But urban bias is endemic within the mainstream media. And this can spill over into bias against intensive and large-scale farming systems, driven, at times, more by stereotypes and ideology than informed understanding of the subject.”
That disconnect isn’t exclusive to the UK, however.
“I saw a lot of this when I was in the US. There is a severe lack of agricultural specialism among general news journalists.
“It works both ways though. There is deep-rooted suspicion of the mainstream media among farmers. Many believe journalists attack them unfairly on issues like the environment and animal welfare, but some farmers struggle to separate criticism from legitimate challenge. Knee-jerk defensiveness and a lack of transparency are key barriers to a constructive relationship with the media.
“It’s something I am determined to tackle. I want farmers to feel confident about opening up to the public, I want them to share their stories. Similarly I want to encourage journalists to take a constructive and open-minded approach to agricultural stories.”
While she sees lots of parallels between the struggles of farmers in the UK and the U.S., the biggest difference is scale. The size (or lack thereof) of the UK compared to the U.S. struck home when Jones and her dad were driving across South Dakota, just before the UK was set to vote on whether to leave the European Union.
Jones said, “My dad was looking out of the window across the vast prairie. ‘I’m definitely voting to remain in the EU,’ he said pensively.
‘Why, Dad?’ I asked.
‘Because being out here makes me realize how small we are. We’re just a speck. A postage stamp on the planet compared to this place.’”
The vote went the other way, and now the UK is preparing to leave the European Union, which could have major implications for all elements of the UK economy and political climate, including agriculture.
The uncertainty introduced by the Brexit vote has changed the dialog around farming in the UK, and brings up a lot of issues farmers haven’t dealt with before. They are heavily reliant on migrant labor from elsewhere in the EU for fruit, vegetable and dairy farms, which may be facing changes with the exit from the EU. They’re also concerned about the possibility of not getting a trade deal with EU, competition from cheaper imports and farm subsidies.
A possible trade deal with U.S. could be an opportunity or a threat, depending on point of view, Jones said. “Some British farmers and consumers have expressed concerns about importing agricultural products raised in a different way to ours – with the use of GM crops or hormones, for example. Others are very excited about the prospect of increasing exports to the U.S. – the organic milk sector, for example, is desperate to sell more cheese in America. It will be interesting to see what will happen but that disparity in scale makes it an un-level playing field.
“But other farmers are optimistic, ambitious and ready to grab the opportunities coming our way,” Jones said. “Many feel it will be easier for young farmers to enter the industry and innovate once direct subsidies have been removed (which is looking increasingly likely). Others are readying themselves to sell ‘brand British’ into a global marketplace. It is a very interesting time politically.
One strength she noticed in the United States is the uniformity of the beef animals.
“You have mastered the art of rearing a great steak! I don’t mind admitting American Angus beef is delicious (does that make me a traitor?) and that supply is consistent in size, marbling and taste – it’s a very professional industry and economies of scale must help with that.”
That’s not something the UK has focused on, and is impossible, given the limitations imposed by the size of the country. However, she hopes UK farmers focus on their own strengths.
“The UK beef sector is less uniform — we have farms of all different sizes — some with just handful of cattle like my dad’s — rearing all sorts of different breeds. That meticulously measured consistency isn’t there in the same way and I don’t believe we can compete on that level. Our unique selling point must be our small family farms, the copious green grass and production standards which many European consumers are willing to pay a premium for.”
Since Brexit, these issues have seen a much more prominent position in the news media.
“From my point of view, I’ve enjoyed seeing agriculture shoot up the news agenda. The industry (which is one of the most exposed sectors to the impacts of Brexit) has had more headlines and much more attention in the last year. And that has to be a good thing – it puts food and farming in the spotlight.”
While many farmers and ranchers prefer to avoid the spotlight, Jones believes improving relationships between media and agriculture—and consequently consumers–is vital to future success. And she’s seen it happen.
The primary program she produces for BBC is called Countryfile, which focuses on rural issues. “Countryfile has tapped into a real interest in countryside issues among the general public. Since moving to a Sunday evening primetime slot we’ve become the most watched factual program on British television, regularly pulling audiences of more than 8 million. This is why I refuse to accept that rural issues are not of interest to the general public. I know they are…you just have to tell stories in a way that connects with people.” F
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