Three journalists who cover agriculture for their non-agricultural publications convened on a panel during the American Farm Bureau Federation in San Antonio, to share their experiences – including how farmers view them.
Alan Bjerga writes for Washington, D.C.-based Bloomberg News, and is the author of "Endless Appetites." Bjerga also grew up on a farm in Minnesota, which it helps him pass what he calls the farm bona fides: when the farmer he's interviewing wants to know whether he has a farm background, whether he understands what the farmer does and whether he has the experience the farmer has.
Bjerga adds, however, those concerns couch a big question: Will you be on my side?
"I usually pass the farm bona fides. I've had the experience. But no, I'm not on your side. I'm a journalist. I'm not supposed to be on anyone's side," Bjerga explains.
His colleagues on the panel, including Lynn Brezosky, San Antonio Express News, nodded in agreement. "People do want to read about latest technology," Brezosky said. "Agriculture isn't very sexy. It's a hard sell sometimes, to readers and to editors."
Jerry Hagstrom, Washington, D.C., writes the subscription-based Hagstrom Report, and says it's important to tell each side – in this case, organic farmers and corn/soy farmers – what's going on on the other side. He's also spent time writing about agribusiness demand on commodity producers: what happens and who pays when Kelloggs wants certified sustainable rice for their Rice Krispies?
Each of the panelists had succinct advice for farmers as they talk to media:
Hagstrom: "Try not to sound angry." Especially with questions about GMOs and government regulation, he added. "Take a greater interest in the origin of the question: why are people asking it? What are they concerned about?"
Brezosky: "Reach out to us more. Reach out through your farm organizations and let us know what's on your mind. Invite us to your farm." That helps her put a face with an issue and it makes for a more well-balanced story – and a story that's more likely to get on the front page.
Bjerga: "Be known as someone who respects other's opinions and respect the role they play." He tries to respect the farmer's role and asks that the farmer respect his role, which is to answer his reader's questions.
LET'S WORK TOGETHER
Bjerga acknowledged that often, there's no easy answer or quick fix for the concerns agriculture has about its perception. He pointed to a 2013 survey by Rutgers that revealed 64% of respondents would be upset if they learned a genetically modified ingredient was in their restaurant meal. "It's a rude awakening for those 64%. We need education. There's no easy answer,' he added. "Just keep plugging along."
Bjerga said papers and reporters can make mistakes and if a farmers sees a true correction to be made, they need to point it out to the reporter and if no response, their boss. If a mistake has been made, the paper will run a correction. But don't mistake a correction for something you don't agree with.
"I've written stories that were not favorable to agriculture and then received calls from farmers saying, 'If you had any background in agriculture, you'd understand this.' They assume I don't know anything because they don't like what I wrote," Bjerga said.
And while farmers are often trying to get coverage for agricultural stories, some stories get plenty of coverage – like horse slaughter. Hagstrom said farmers have to realize some stories are a national issue, and some reporting may never be to their liking. And in a case like horse slaughter, the coverage doesn't determine the winner; the courts will. Journalists are just trying to follow the story.
"We're not all powerful. Media is a public forum that tries to cover both sides," Bjerga said. "Activists want to see legal change."
And when the activists are, well, active? In the case of agriculture trying to compete with HSUS, for example, Bjerga says it will pay for farmers to act quickly.
"Journalists are on deadline and the person who can get an articulate answer back the quickest will win," Bjerga said. "I've talked with a lot of very articulate young people in agriculture and in advancing your organization, they have been very effective."
Check out more coverage of the 2014 AFBF Convention:
'Cash Will Be King'
Food Economist: Consumers Are Not the Enemy
Stallman Reelected as President of the American Farm Bureau Federation