With Minnesota's agriculture sector providing more than 340,000 jobs for the state and creating $75 billion in economic activity, one would think that there would be plenty of news and feature stories for the general media to cover.
One would think that thoughtful journalists would go beyond rewriting financial press releases or covering the latest water quality press conference.
No, farmers attending Farmfest who listened to an eight-member media panel learned that agriculture is a niche market or special interest group that does not warrant a reporter dedicated to covering it.
The only way that Minnesota farming would get some press is when it is connected to consumers and the broader community, panelists said. Or, when something controversial occurs.
Specifically, according to the Star Tribune editorial writer on the panel, agriculture is only of interest to that newspaper when it pertains to food safety, food security, the environment and energy. Two Metro television reporters were a touch broader in their potential coverage, yet they still linked ag coverage and its impact on the greater community of readers and viewers.
All panelists said they tried to be objective in their media coverage, which is a basic journalistic principle. However, when one panelist asked the audience if they thought the general media was fair in its coverage of agriculture, only a few hands went up. When asked if they thought ag coverage was poor, the majority of the audience raised hands in agreement.
I was not surprised that the panel's journalists had pigeon-holed agriculture. Media staffs are leaner and less likely to have the resources to devote to in-depth stories. Plus, the pressure to produce news quickly is greater, thanks to social media. And let's face it. Agriculture is a business, like manufacturing and mining. Just because people have jobs in those industries doesn't make it engaging reading.
However, I was surprised at the panel's collective plea for more connections with farmers.
The panel's consensus was:
-Farmers need to be proactive and be available before and after events so ag's voice may be heard.
-Farmers should be more open and willing to share their stories.
-Farmers need to understand that reporters are on daily deadlines so quick responses are needed.
-The state ag community needs to make it easier to have access to a variety of farmers—large, small, conventional, organic—to convey better, more accurate information about issues that affect farm operations.
-Farmers need to speak in common language that the non-farm press understands.
-Reporters prefer to speak with farmers—not their farm organizations.
-Reporters need lists of farmers who can speak to specific issues when they arise.