Farming News - Help or Hinder? How the mainstream media portrays farming to the public

Help or Hinder? How the mainstream media portrays farming to the public

07 Dec 2017
Frontdesk

A new report has been published, by 2016 Nuffield Scholar, Anna Jones. In it she questions whether the mainstream media helps or hinders the public’s perception of farming.

Sentry Farming Conference speaker Anna Jones - Journalist, Broadcaster and Nuffield Scholar.

Anna’s key findings were:

  • The urban/rural disconnect is real, more so in Western and urbanised societies, and both the media and farming industry are contributing to it
  • Some mainstream media coverage is clouded by urban bias, knee-jerk distrust of agribusiness, failing to differentiate between campaigners and informers and an over-reliance on too few sources with an overt political agenda. There is a severe lack of agricultural specialism among general news journalists
  • Farmers and industry are fuelling the disconnect through a lack of openness and transparency, disproportionate defensiveness in the face of legitimate challenge, disunity among farming sectors and a sense of ‘exceptionalism’ or entitlement to positive coverage
  • The public debate and narrative around agriculture is being dominated by farming unions and lobbyists. Politics at an industry level is drowning out individuals at a farm level, contributing to more distrust

The world’s media has never been more powerful – or less trusted.  Its role in shaping the outcomes of the EU referendum and US presidential election of 2016 cannot be overestimated. The spread of ‘fake news’, an unfamiliar phenomenon at the beginning of this study two years ago, has been deemed a threat to democracy. 

Yet British farming, with an uncertain future post-Brexit, arguably needs the media more than ever before. It has some convincing to do – that agriculture is worthy of public money; that consumers should shun foreign labels and choose British instead; that the environment is safe in farmers’ hands.

Exploring how the mainstream media can ‘help or hinder’ that mission – and what lessons can be learned from around the world – forms the basis of Anna’s report.

Farmers often complain of a ‘disconnect’ between themselves and urban people and blame negative or simply non-existent media coverage. But traditional media, in the face of shrinking resources and shortening attention spans, is fighting for survival in a ruthlessly competitive digital landscape. It must target audiences with content that is relevant to their everyday lives. The vast majority of that audience – more than 80% of the UK population - live in towns and cities. 

Anna’s research confirms that the ‘disconnect’ is real, more so in Western and urbanised societies, and both the industry and media have a role to play in it.  

Urban bias is endemic within the mainstream media. This can spill over into bias against intensive and large-scale farming systems, driven, at times, more by stereotypes and ideology than informed understanding of the subject. Anna saw no evidence of urban bias leading to deliberate falsehoods, but it can influence story selection and the way in which a story is told (i.e. the angle).  

There is deep-rooted suspicion of the mainstream media among farmers. Many believe journalists attack them unfairly on issues like the environment and animal welfare, but some farmers struggle to separate criticism from legitimate challenge. Knee-jerk defensiveness and a lack of transparency are key barriers to a constructive relationship with the media.  

These challenges are not insurmountable. The case studies shared in this report prove that effective agricultural communication and rigorous, balanced journalism are not mutually exclusive. My findings should motivate farmers to engage with the media; and encourage journalists to take a constructive and open-minded approach to agricultural stories. 

This is not a quantitative study of media content, but a qualitative analysis of perceptions and personal experience. ‘Agriculture’ in this context refers mainly to conventional production and the term ‘mainstream media’ to national press and news broadcasters, with some regional and specialist contributions. This is not a study of social media.

Anna comes from a farm on the Welsh-Shropshire border and a long line of farmers - at least five generations. She has a degree in Journalism & was a newspaper reporter in North Wales and the West Midlands before joining the BBC as a researcher on Countryfile in 2006. She is now a director on the programme and mainly work on the investigative items, with presenter Tom Heap.

The full report can be read here http://nuffieldinternational.org/live/