Caution: This Headline Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story — Putting News in Context

Reporting news is a complicated process. When writing or telling a story, a reporter makes hundreds of decisions — some intentional, some unintentional — on what to share with the audience and what to leave out. In making a story understandable and engaging, the reporter or editor will often boil down an issue to a single piece of information that they think will be of interest to a listener or reader — something that will grab the attention of the audience. And with changes in the way news is delivered, the audience is increasingly being left to figure out what this information means.

farmer phone smartphone shopThat’s because in a world with a 24 hour news cycle, 140 character limits on tweets, shrinking space in newspapers and sensationalized headlines forwarded straight to your phone, it can be difficult for a reporter to share much, if any, background on a story. The threshold for what makes it into a story has changed. Whether it’s good or bad, there simply isn’t space or time in many mainstream mediums to share and process as much information as in the past. Where hourly newscasts on the radio used to be five or even 10 minutes long, announcers now often aim for four or more very-refined stories in a 60 second break. And thanks to Twitter and online media, any individual can share news in real time — before anybody has even had time to comprehend what it means.

In many ways this simplified and concentrated information delivery is what we want. It’s easy to consume and it’s immediate. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out what the story is about. However, this “cheat sheet” version of news also creates a major problem: the audience doesn’t receive enough information to understand the context or meaning of a story.

While it might be hard for some journalists to admit, the viewers aren’t alone in only knowing part of the story. There are often cases, particularly when it comes to complex subjects such as agriculture and science, where the reporter or the messenger doesn’t have the time or expertise to grasp the implications of a story they’re reporting. And that makes it awfully hard for the recipient of the message to truly understand the story. As the old saying goes, “they know just enough to be dangerous.”

Most of these stories also aren’t letting the reader know that their job, if it’s shift-work that involves waking up at different times of the day, falls in the same “probably carcinogenic” risk category, or that the alcohol in their beer or wine is actually a higher-risk cancer agent.

Take for example the news on Friday that a UN agency has classified some common pesticides, including glyphosate and malathion, as “probably carcinogenic.” Headlines around the globe have proclaimed “the world’s most-used pesticides are probably causing cancer.” And as you’d expect based on this stripped-down piece of information, the reaction in many places has been “let’s stop using them.”

What people aren’t reading or hearing in most of these reports is that the use of these pesticides might be preferred to any alternative. Maybe the risk of developing cancer as a result of exposure to the insecticide malathion is much lower than contracting malaria or West Nile virus from mosquitoes. Most of these stories also aren’t letting the reader know that their job, if it’s shift-work that involves waking up at different times of the day, falls in the same “probably carcinogenic” risk category, or that the alcohol in their beer or wine is actually a higher-risk cancer agent. Perhaps the most important piece of information not included in most of these stories is an explanation of how this UN agency comes up with its classifications (here’s a blog post providing some context on this particular story.) All this information that doesn’t make the cut, if included, would likely change the impact the story has in the minds of its audience.

For agriculture, there are many examples where the oversimplification of complex issues leads to misconceptions, which in turn, can lead to poor government policy and ill-informed popular trends. Take the Ontario government’s approach to bee health for example. Or the Manitoba government’s “blame hog farmers” policy that was supposed to revitalize Lake Winnipeg. The growth in gluten-free diets is another illustration of people looking for an (overly) simplified solution to a complicated problem.

For agriculture, there are many examples where the oversimplification of complex issues leads to misconceptions, which in turn, can lead to poor government policy and ill-informed popular trends.

While it’s convenient to receive information in bite-sized chunks, or tweets, or headlines that are easy to digest, the implications of information consumed this way must also be understood to make informed decisions.

So next time a news story catches your attention, before you share it on Facebook or act on it, consider finding another perspective, ideally from someone who understands the problem (for issues that involve agriculture, that might be a farmer.) For much of today’s news, it’s up to the reader or viewer to explore and understand the context of the story.

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Kelvin Heppner

Kelvin Heppner is a field editor for Real Agriculture based near Altona, Manitoba. Prior to joining Real Ag he spent more than 10 years working in radio. He farms with his father near Rosenfeld, MB and is on Twitter at @realag_kelvin

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