Knowledge-based journalism could serve agriculture well

With back to school around the corner, some students (and their parents) will be wondering if the course selections they’ve made will help them reach their next destination.

Well, if a job is on the wish list, consider this: Workopolis says among the most common skills requested by employers are communication, customer relations, and writing.

Certainly not everything centres around these skills. For example, crisp, logical thinkers who can reason through a situation – something education at all levels aims to help students do – should excel in the interviews that get them a job, let alone situations they encounter in everyday life.

But they still need to be able to communicate whatever enlightenment they have to offer. So, in the end, communication skills are indeed a vital part of the whole package. As @craigcrest said as part of a twitter conversation about this Workopolis report, “we have different natural talents. Skills can be acquired with practice and determination. Communications is KEY to success.”

As a writer, I’m encouraged to see writing skills weighing in so heavily. I’m particularly pleased now that social media has taken hold, and so many more people are involved in communication.

Here’s why. Professional journalists spend years in college or university learning their trade, earning a diploma or degree. Maybe it goes without saying that in doing so, they learn a variety of communications skills. But I’ll say it anyway, because it follows that someone without such training, who develops a blog or website and calls themselves a citizen journalist, could be lacking some of those communications skills if they haven’t taken any other training. True, there are natural-born writers. There are natural-born runners and mathematicians too. They do better with skill development training.

Also pertinent to this discussion is a reason citizen journalism caught on in the first place: readers, listeners and viewers wanted to hear more from a breath of decision makers and opinion leaders. Through citizen journalism, people who found it tough to have a voice in conventional media could have their own media, for better or worse. But polarization can happen, and does, when those who think a certain way draw news only from sources with a limited scope.

This is tough on conventional agriculture and science. It’s discouraging to reach out to those who see things differently, to try to reach some level of understanding and balance, when the forums they frequent aren’t open to hearing both sides.

A new research paper in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences suggests journalists have an even bigger role in what’s called knowledge-based journalism.

It’s kind of an odd-sounding discipline – after all, isn’t all journalism supposed to be knowledge based?

This paper’s authors argue that journalists and their news organizations have an important role to play in contextualizing and critically evaluating expert knowledge. These journalists are well placed to facilitate discussion that bridges entrenched ideological positions. And finally, they can promote consideration of a broader menu of policy options and technologies.

Some conventional journalists think adding perspective to a discussion is already their role. I agree.

But adding perspective doesn’t mean just presenting one side. That may please those who are not interested in a broad vision. But to deepen the understanding of any issue, it’s important to hear all sides.

Me and my colleague Jim Evans from the Agricultural Communications Documentation Centre at the University of Illinois created a blogging approach we hope promotes knowledge-based journalism, while simultaneously making it possible for citizen journalists to make their points. I presented a webinar about it for the Farm Management Centre back in March, as part of its ongoing agvocacy efforts, and RealAgriculture has been generous letting me talk about it a few times here.

I raise it again because it’s a way to promote knowledge-based journalism, and I believe it can help agriculture. It’s a straight-forward, three-paragraph structure. The writer starts with the issue (paragraph one), then brings in the new development in the second paragraph, and finally, gives their opinion in the third paragraph.

By then, readers hopefully have enough background to agree, disagree or converse intelligently.

It’s one of many tools available to agriculture. And sharing information and transferring knowledge requires as many tools as we can muster.

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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