Biased against both sides
By Ken Root
I can be as introspective as the next guy. In my years as a broadcast and print journalist, I've been told that my interview questions or my reporting was unfavorable to a sector of the farming or ranching industry. In trying to analyze the source of the complaint, it was revealed that my view was contradictory to the vested interests of the plaintiff. The question then was what to do about it. Should I stop covering news that is controversial? Should I find a niche where I can be an advocate and humorist so everyone will love me? Should I stop asking questions that cause the interviewee to have to defend their premise?
In a long and checkered career as an agricultural journalist, I've found that what people tell you they believe is not always their real belief. People want to get their news from trusted sources, but they also want to protect their enterprise from "invasion" by those who would point out its flaws and question its agenda.
I hear a number of college students say that they want to be "advocates" for agriculture. Their premise is good as they see an underappreciated sector that takes the brunt of environmental and social criticism from an uninformed public. But advocacy can't be blind. It requires awareness of the good and bad within the industry and belief that the position you represent is moral and truthful. A lobbyist is a blind advocate for hire. Their public line never wavers from the marching orders they receive. That's why real constituents are so credible when they speak to a member of the legislature. The more crafted the message, the more it is suspected of being a plan from an unknown manipulator.
In general, Americans question what is told to them by anyone in a position of authority. From your mother, when you were 5, to your principal when you were 14, to your congressman when you are 50. We are likely to challenge authoritative statements and then decide our own truth. The profession of journalism fits in between the two. A journalist is a proxy for the public so everyone doesn't have to ask the same questions about a topic of interest or controversy. A journalist should be as independent and questioning as any citizen. This is hard to do in an era of media conglomerates who utilize news reporting as a profit center. It is very tempting to gain favor with commercial sponsors by assuring them their agenda will either be endorsed or their indiscretions avoided by the editorial staff.
I had one brief period where I felt good about myself as a reporter. It was the early years of Agri-Talk (1994-1998) as we considered ourselves editorially independent. We had sponsors who put their messages in the commercial breaks and loved the size and demographics of the audience but stayed out of the editorial and content meetings. We had management that was nervous but seeing success in standing back and letting the program unfold. Working with two excellent producers who also believed in the cause, we identified subjects that were too hot for most media to handle: Mega Hog Farms, Walmart in Rural America, Old Drivers in Rural Communities, Pork and Soybean Referendums, Drug Abuse, Spousal Abuse, even Extramarital Affairs in Farming Communities.
We talked with people on both sides of the major ag issues of the 1990s. Those who felt they were in the minority relished the chance to have an equal voice on the program. Some were pretty far out. They either proved their point or damaged their credibility, but they did it without being taken out of context. The listener made the call. My biggest challenge was getting them to fit their comments into the time allotted.
It was an audience pleaser but it was not a show that received good reviews from mainstream associations. The National Corn Growers wouldn't talk with us because they couldn't control the program content. So we put the American Corn Growers on the air. I called them the American Agriculture Movement of the 1990s and told them they really had no interest in corn but just rabble rousing, to which they robustly objected until they proved, by their own words, that they had no interest in corn but were just mad about pretty much everything going on in traditional agriculture and government. We talked with R-CALF about cattle issues and their protests against packers and other industry associations. Mainstream organizations were offered the chance to state their position, but only as a part of the program, and they may be up against a spokesperson, or callers, with a totally different view. The National Corn Growers came on, the National Pork Producers and United Soybean Board. The audience loved it because the full range of views was expressed so that the listener could could walk away with knowledge that could be shaped into an informed opinion.
Alas, it ended when new ownership determined the editorial content was jeopardizing revenue and the goal became to do shows about current or potential advertisers. I ended my contract and left my largest audience but with my dignity intact.
In word and deed, I am training young journalists today. I don't take that lightly. They have already been exposed to negative responses by associations or individuals who don't want the views of the Humane Society of the United States aired or printed. I tell them that we didn't cause this controversy. It began when two contrasting points of view came up against each other. Our job is to question both sides and put their positions forward. We strive for balance and have to let the listener or reader determine their own truth.
During one Agri-Talk program an in-studio guest said to me: "You are biased against both sides!" I smiled and thanked him.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.