The state of farm journalism
Last week, I joined over two hundred farm journalists in Ontario, to attend the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Congress. The Congress offered a rare opportunity to measure the pulse of agricultural journalism in Canada and abroad.
While at the Congress, I met a reporter from South Africa, who told me that the government is poised to adopt legislation squashing freedom of the press. The phone hacking scandal that enveloped Rupert Murdoch’s media empire shows that journalists in the rest of the world still face challenges.
I also sat down with Henry Heald, a veteran farm journalist and communications professional, to get his perspective on agricultural journalism in Canada. Heald first began covering agriculture when he joined the Canadian Press in 1966. Recently he contributed a chapter to Media Values, published by the International Communications Forum, an organization that promotes media ethics.
“I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that if anybody’s going to save the world, it’s going to have to be the news media because they’re the only group that has everybody’s ear,” says Heald. “Some people argue that journalism isn’t a profession, it’s a craft. But it’s more than a craft, it’s a responsibility.”
A person only needs to tune into the evening news to see the lack of balanced reporting in the mainstream media.
“So often the news media starts off with the attitude that if it bleeds, it leads. Maybe the good stories are just as important as the bad ones. So why don’t we tell some good stories and if there are bad stories to tell, balance them with what people are doing to solve the problem,” Heald says.
While the farm media generally doesn’t subscribe to the “if it bleeds, it leads,” philosophy, we might ask ourselves if we sometimes advocate too much for the agriculture industry. I asked Heald directly whether agriculture journalism is generally balanced.
“You don’t find very much in the farm papers that’s critical of any part of the agriculture industry…for a lot of them, their agenda is to help farmers become better farmers. The Ontario Milk Producers produces a wonderful magazine. They take a stand against the government on issues like supply management and stuff like that. I don’t know whether there are any aspects of the industry itself they should be getting after. I guess I became almost the same way. It seemed to me that there were lots of good stories to tell,” Heald says.
Whatever their beat, all journalists should make sure their reporting is balanced and responsible, Heald states.
“You can tell a story that expresses controversy on an issue without badmouthing somebody who’s involved in it. Don’t destroy somebody’s character, somebody’s reputation, when you don’t have to,” Heald says. Honesty about one’s own motives, and a desire to find the stories about people living the values we need in our society, are also characteristics of a good journalist.
When asked what advice he would give young journalists, Heald tells a story about Bill Porter, founder of the International Communications Forum. As Porter was on his deathbed, his family gathered to catch his last words.
“With his dying breath, he said, ‘check your sources.’”
Photo of Henry Heald by David Channer. Photo previously published in For a Change.