Who is obliged to present the other side? Journalism, farming, and fact and fiction



Owen RobertsIn universities in Ontario, the semester has ended and students are off to travel, work at a summer job or just recharge their batteries.

Experience has taught me as an instructor to not pack too much into the very end of the semester. Nerves are frayed and agendas are overwhelmed. That’s especially true in the winter semester, when senior students are preparing to graduate and picking up mandatory courses they’ve missed or avoided.

The “lighter back end” approach has worked over the years. I teach skill development in agricultural communications, and in my course success is based on how the students have advanced through the semester and embraced the skill they’re learning. There is no final exam, at least not this year. I measure their progress from a starting point to whatever end point they arrive at individually, rather than a common end point.

Using the bicycle analogy, they all need to know how to ride, but they all ride just a little differently.

And while we spend most of our class time learning journalism skills, we also make an effort to critique what professional journalists are up to — those in the mass media, those that the agri-food sector is trying to influence, to bring some balance and understanding to audiences about agriculture and its effect on health and the environment, among other matters.

Some gems always surface in this analysis. This semester, I was struck about a discussion regarding the media’s responsibility to put issues and even facts into perspective.

The example concerned new research that suggested shielding infants from peanuts might be setting them up for peanut allergies as children. It’s a highly charged study and it contradicts convention by a long shot.

One of my students was miffed that the journalist hadn’t added in the line that accompanies many research stories: that is, “more research is needed to show conclusive results.”

She thought it was irresponsible of the journalist to not add that sentence to the story, because the study might be taken as gospel by the public and worse, lead to allergic reactions by some children.

But what if the scientist didn’t say it?

Is it the journalist’s responsibility to insert it, anyway?

Journalism 101 teaches us journalists put issues in perspective, provide balance, be objective. That’s why you’ll often see someone else quoted – usually at the end of a story – who may represent the other side of an issue. The ag sector gets annoyed when that voice is an activist. But it’s a journalist’s job to cover both sides of an issue, not just the side who speaks loudest or gets out of the blocks the fastest.

The omission in the peanut story also opens up a discussion about media training. Critics think news sources are media trained to be puppets and utter the company line. And sure, there are instances when no matter how hard you try or how many ways you ask a question, you get the same pat answer. Very frustrating, not to mention insulting, to a well-intentioned journalist.

In the peanut allergy story, a trained media spokesperson – a scientist, in this case — could have been schooled by a media trainer to not overlook the opportunity to add their own perspective, before someone else does. That might include a line about the need for further studies.

Indeed, it’s a positive example of how media training could help the story be told better.

But anyone in agriculture who wants to get a point across shouldn’t wait or hope a journalist asks a question about it, then get angry if that doesn’t happen.

These days, with shrinking newsrooms, some journalists may not have the breadth of knowledge to be able to put complicated issues in perspective, whether it’s their job or not. News sources have an opportunity to help, and rather than criticize journalists, I say take the opportunity to assist.

Remember, you’re not just talking to journalists; you’re talking to their readers, listeners and viewers. Working with a journalist is a chance to build relationships and help agriculture be better understood by more people. Isn’t that worth the effort?

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