Saturday, April 13, 2024

The media are not out to get farming

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The work of journalists, like the work of farmers, really matters to society and they can be an easy target when things go wrong, says Daniel Eb.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In this series, the Eating the Elephant lads each explore an unpopular opinion in farming.

Compared to what some people dream up, the big city media newsrooms I’ve been to look pretty normal. There’s no Marxist literature in the waiting room. There’s mostly cow’s milk in the fridge. 

At the morning editorial meeting, reporters pitch or get assigned stories about farming – just as they would about politics, sports, business or culture. Some of these reporters are my friends and I can confirm that many of the accusations made about them in country pubs are true. They tend to lean left politically, sip a lot of lattes, live in places like Ponsonby and know very little about what happens on farm. 

But I want to be clear – this idea that a deep-seated bias against farming runs through these people and their work is baseless. 

First the facts. As part of my work I regularly see media sentiment tracking about farming issues. In general, media coverage related to farming is around 30% positive, 65% neutral and 5% negative. Sentiment is harder to discern on social media, because it’s crazy there. 

For a sector that employs one in seven Kiwis, contributes 10.7% of GDP, is consistently navigating dozens of highly emotive issues – like animal welfare, biodiversity loss, food security or water quality – I think that balance of coverage is exceptional. There may even be an argument that any media bias is in farming’s favour. 

Apart from being par for the course for a sector of this size, consider that those few poorly framed, inaccurate or provocative stories are more a reflection of disruption in the media market than the integrity of a single editor or journalist.

In the past two decades cheap, effective and engaging social media competitors have eaten advertising market share. In response, editorial teams drove efficiency – producing more content from fewer reporters. 

On the ground that looks like one reporter doing the work of two or three, every day. Can you really expect perfect reporting, covering all the angles and nuance, from someone in that position? Add in the mental toll from online trolls and the sub-standard pay, and we start to see today’s journalists for what they are – undervalued members of society who play a critical role informing the rest of us and holding the powerful to account. 

Higher up the editorial chain, the distributive power and clickbait nature of social media can pressure editors towards controversial headlines. Not out of personal bias, but to keep their people employed. I don’t know about you, but I’m biased towards keeping my job too. 

Looking more broadly, the media market may be a blueprint for how farming might adapt to disruptions like alternative meat and milk. In response to new competition and rapidly changing consumer trends, media heritage brands are innovating fast. To get ever closer to their customer, they’re constantly experimenting with the type of content they produce or building new capability like podcasts or on-demand video. 

They are partnering up, too – either with competitors or, where their work specifically serves the public interest (think local council meetings), with government. Do these challenges and possible solutions sound familiar? 

The blanket accusation of bias also limits our ability to build things that might help mainstream media better report on farming. One idea is a Farming Media Centre. Modelled on the Science Media Centre, which better communicates science in media, this platform would run farming familiarisation days for journalists, host a database of expert farmers for on-the-ground comment on specific issues or provide cross-sector panel perspectives for mainstream media to better understand nuance across the production systems. 

I understand the reflexive pushback many farmers have to negative media. Farming is an identity. It’s hard to separate the job from the self, so criticism of a practice or a production system often gets felt personally. Nothing in this article will take the sting out of those stories. 

But like farmers, journalists operate under pressures and systems that don’t always generate great results. Also like farmers, their work really matters to society and they can be an easy target when things go wrong. I think our society undervalues both the role of the farmer and the role of the journalist. So if you can afford it, pay for good media.

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