By Urban C. Lehner
A good question deserves a considered answer, and sometimes the questions requiring the most consideration are the seemingly simple ones. So when Jack Keller, ad-sales manager for DTN/The Progressive Farmer, asked the other week why the media has an anti-agricultural bias, I begged for time to think. Here’s a belated stab at an answer.
I spent three decades in the non-agricultural media. I know a lot of media people. Most are honest men and women who try their best to be fair and accurate, just as most of the farmers I know are honest men and women who do their best to provide nutritious food, protect the environment and treat animals decently.
Why, if that’s true, does the media spend so much time harping on agriculture’s real and imagined shortcomings?
Start with some sociological background. The media is part of society, and our society for the most part knows little about agriculture and has few personal or family ties to farmers. Moreover, as a society we’re well fed and take adequate food supplies for granted. We expect farmers to go beyond providing enough food; we want them to keep the air and water clean, fight obesity and assure farm animals a pain-free existence.
Responding to these expectations is a media that prides itself on crusading to right society’s wrongs. The media’s heroes are writers like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered the Watergate cover-up, and Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, the muckrakers famed for their early twentieth-century exposes of Standard Oil and the meatpacking industry. Many journalists think their role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
That’s important enough to repeat: afflict the comfortable. For that innocuous word “comfortable” illuminates the answer to Jack’s question.
This may come as a shock, but farmers today are, in society’s eyes, among the comfortable. Society has an image of farmers that differs from the image farmers have of themselves. To many farmers, even those with lots of acres or animals, agriculture is a way of life as much as it is a business. To much of society, agriculture is a business, pure and simple.
Some who see agriculture this way believe the family farm is a thing of the past; they think Monsanto and Cargill and Tyson own the farms. Don’t get hung up on this misconception. Even if society has the details wrong, its view of agriculture is broadly correct.
Family farms most farms may be, but they’re family farms that plant hundreds or even thousands of acres. They borrow large sums. They hire employees. Through ingenuity and hard work, including work off the farm, they make more money than the average American. They own way more assets. All in all it’s hard to deny society’s conclusion: Farmers are among the comfortable. Agriculture is a business.
How does society view business? With a mixture of admiration, envy and distrust. The media view it the same way. When a business does something clever like invent the iPhone or find a cure for AIDS, the media applauds. When profits are good, the media admires them; when they’re too good, in society’s eyes, the media carps. When a whistle-blower or do-gooder group accuses a business of violating safety rules or cooking its research or dumping chemicals in the river, the media chronicles the accusations, often unskeptically.
Agriculture is a business. The media cover agriculture as a business. That’s the bottom line.
The question agriculture should ask is how to improve the coverage. Those who want to lash back should ask themselves what good that will do, for if done carelessly there’s a risk of drawing an us-versus-them line in the sand and generating even more distrust. Those who want the ag media to stand up more strongly for agriculture should realize that the ag media don’t reach the audience that needs to be reached; the ag media talks to agriculture, and we in agriculture have to go beyond taking to ourselves.
Research shows that facts rarely change minds. Stories do. Human stories. That’s why one of the best ways to win hearts and minds is for farmers to invite the public to visit. Tell agriculture’s story face to face to groups of visitors. Let people see first hand the problems farmers grapple with. Let them see all the good things farmers do for the environment. Don’t just tell them, show them. Give agriculture a human face.
Articulate, personable farmers — and most farmers I’ve met are articulate and personable — are their own best advocates. Talking to small groups is a slow process, but attitudes are never quickly changed. There are no shortcuts. Invite visitors and the media coverage will improve. Where society goes, the press will follow.
A century ago, half of all Americans worked on farms. Today less than one percent does. Early on, when people from the country were moving to the city, they still had relatives back on the farm. Today, few do.
Frayed ties between city and country are one of the reasons society and the media react the way they do to agriculture. The first step toward changing the media’s anti-agriculture bias is repairing those frayed ties.
If nothing else, by inviting people to your farm you may convince them that it isn’t owned by big agribusiness.
As always I welcome your feedback on this letter and your suggestions for how DTN might serve you better.
Urban C. Lehner
Office: 800-485-4000 / Direct:402 399 6440
Cell: 402 301 6143 / Fax: 402 390 7187
DTN/The Progressive Farmer – A Telvent Brand
9110 West Dodge Road
Omaha, NE 68114