How ag should respond to media criticism |

How ag should respond to media criticism

DTN – Comments from readers, a newspaper’s obsession with a non-ag story and a conversation with a sociologist compel me to grapple again with an old question – the media’s jaundiced view of agriculture.

I have refined my views, as I will indicate momentarily, but haven’t changed them fundamentally. I still think, as I did two weeks ago, that becoming more assertive and “standing up to the media” is a bad idea. I still think the problem is the frayed ties between farm and city.

I still think one solution is to repair those ties, preferably face-to-face, by inviting groups to come see for themselves how modern farmers farm. One of the reader comments was from an Iowa farmer who does just that. She thinks it makes a difference.

But I also received a comment saying I was just plain wrong: The problem, this reader said, is the media’s inaccurate reporting and society’s gullibility in swallowing it. That this happens sometimes I do not deny. These instances, however, are but one slice of a more intricate reality.

Where this reader and I differ is on the relationship between media and society. He thinks the media leads and society follows. I think the media follows as much as it leads. It’s part of society. It caters to society’s concerns. It can amplify or illuminate them, but it almost never has the power to create them out of whole cloth.

Reports on pesticide runoff, for example, may raise society’s awareness, but if society didn’t care about the environment, the media wouldn’t be so interested in the subject. A few decades ago, in less affluent, less environmentally conscious times, the reports would have made little stir and the media would have soon directed its attention elsewhere.

Since I last wrote on the media and agriculture, an example of the complicated interaction between media and society has been playing out in my hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald. Day after day, a single story has dominated the front page — the University of Nebraska’s switch from the Big 12 to the Big Ten.

The World-Herald has gone gaga over this event. It has covered it from every conceivable angle. In a recent Sunday edition, stories appeared in three different sections, including even one on the tourist attractions for Nebraskans not to miss when following their beloved Huskers to Madison, Ann Arbor, Columbus and the other Big Ten cities.

Surprising? No. The readers want this kind of coverage; they’re as gaga over University of Nebraska football as the newspaper is. As a resident for only seven years, I am fond of my adopted state but still have fresh eyes for its foibles. It still amuses me that failing to wear red to the grocery store here on a fall Saturday is as inexcusable as failing to wear green in an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day. People look at you funny.

I submit: The Omaha World-Herald may feed and nurture Nebraska’s Big Red Machine mania, but it did not create it.

An interview with Larry Kaagan, a New York-based sociologist who follows society’s attitudes toward food and agriculture, helped me put my thinking in a broader context. Where I wrote that society views agriculture as a business and the media covers it as one, Kaagan correctly observes that society still has a “warm fuzzy feeling” for small farms and the pastoral life. It’s the scale of much of modern production agriculture that makes it an industry in the eyes of the average man and subjects it to “industrial” coverage by the news media.

It’s easy to read both too much and too little into the way Americans respond to agricultural issues, Kaagan suggests. Organic farming is an example. It still commands a small market share because of its price, but Kaagan’s research shows many would buy organic if it were less expensive. Their attitude, he says, is “If I can have good-tasting affordable food that doesn’t have chemicals on it that might harm me, my kids or the Earth, why would I be voting for chemicals?”

Have they considered whether organic agriculture could feed the world’s booming population? “Regular day-to-day customers are not thinking those kinds of thoughts.”

Local food is another example. In the abstract, most people instinctively like to buy from their neighbors, Kaagan says. But if they want a piece of fruit in January, they’re not opposed to it coming from a warmer clime. And most haven’t given much thought to “food miles” and the carbon footprint of local food.

The trap agriculture must avoid is what Kaagan calls “demonizing,” the habit of lumping anyone who questions any aspect of modern agriculture into the category of “East and West Coast crazies and elitists.” A parent concerned about pesticide residue isn’t necessarily in league with PETA, he observes; someone who cares about the environment isn’t necessarily opposed to production agriculture or a closet member of the Humane Society.

To all of which I say, Amen. If you treat those who question you or express qualms about some of your practices as enemies, you may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why not, instead, play on that underlying “warm fuzzy feeling” and let them get to know you — and you them? Talk to them. Listen to them. Invite them to your farm.

Doesn’t that sound smarter than getting into a fight with those who own a much bigger bullhorn than you do?

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