Ag journalism hijinks

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by Brian DeVore • Minnesota Agri News has a new reporter cranking out copy. He loves writing about how great it is to spend public funds helping CAFOs put in pits full of liquid poop. He’s a good writer. Trouble is, he’s got a bit of a conflict of interest, one that Agri News has neglected to mention: tax dollars pay his salary. See your money at work in the Jan. 15 edition of Agri News.

Loon Commons is a blog of the Land Stewardship Project. Contact Loon Commons at bdevore@landstewardshipproject.org

Two news articles that appeared in Agri News this week carried the byline “Dick Tremain.” Beneath the byline is the contact e-mail, “news@agrinews.com.” This would lead one to believe Tremain is journalist on-staff with the weekly newspaper, which is a major source of ag news in Minnesota and northern Iowa. But Land Stewardship Project staffer Adam Warthesen noticed that one of the articles, “Young farmer says conservation pays big,” was particularly positive in its portrayal of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a USDA initiative that has received some bad national publicity of late.

As I noted in this blog a few weeks ago, an analysis of EQIP by the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, of which LSP is a member organization, found that a disproportionate amount of the program’s funds are going to help large-scale industrialized livestock operators. They are using this money to build facilities such as liquid manure storage systems, which long ago proved themselves to be environmental debacles. That wasn’t the intent of EQIP, which was supposed to help family-sized operations of all types put in a variety of environmentally-friendly systems.

The CFFE report received national coverage, from the Boston Globe to Public TV’s Market to Market program, and factory farming’s supporters such as the National Pork Producers Council haven’t been too happy about the revelations. Also upset was the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the program.

Despite all this, the Jan. 15 Agri News article failed to mention any of the negatives about EQIP. In fact, it tried to paint a picture of a program that assists young hog farmers by helping pay for large-scale liquid manure systems. The article took special pains to point out that the manure pit that was built with EQIP money by the young farmer featured was tested and there was little if any chance it would leak. We’ve heard that one before.

After doing a Google search, Warthesen discovered why the Jan. 15 Agri News was so positive: Dick Tremain is a public affairs specialist with the NRCS. A government public affairs specialist’s job, among other things, is to generate positive publicity for government programs. (Tremain’s other bylined article in the Jan. 15 Agri News is on page 1; this one is about how NRCS helped a farmer put in some terraces—get this, it turns out that conservation project was a total success as well!)

As an employee of the NRCS, Tremain was doing a bang-up PR job in Agri News this week, but he wasn’t necessarily providing a complete picture of a program that the USDA’s own statistics show is flawed. That’s the job of an independent journalist. By not disclosing Tremain’s employer, Agri-News is helping NRCS and EQIP’s commodity group defenders put a 100 percent positive face on a program in need of major reform.

I called the Agri News editor, Mychal Wilmes, and he confirmed Tremain was an NRCS staffer and that his newspaper has used his copy in the past. I asked Wilmes why Tremain’s affiliation was not identified, and he said it was a “mistake” on his part. It turns out people are out on vacation, etc., etc., and the paper had some news holes to fill, and he liked this particular piece on EQIP because it was “positive.” It certainly was.

Wilmes agreed that news articles written by paid PR people from outside the newspaper should carry extra information identifying the author’s affiliation. He said in the future he would make it clear who was paying the salary of the writer. I will give Wilmes the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an honest mistake. I don’t think he was out to pull one over on his readers. But I’m not sure he and other ag editors see why this is a big deal. From my years working as an ag journalist at newspapers and magazines, I know that government agencies—NRCS, Extension, etc.—are often seen as “objective” sources of information by the farm press. As we’ve seen with EQIP, that’s far from the case.

I also think that in the past the agricultural media has been given a bit of a pass when it comes to journalistic integrity. Because it has its roots in providing farmers with the latest weather and cropping trial results, “farm reporting” has gotten the reputation of being a noncontroversial area of news that doesn’t need to adhere to principles of objectivity, etc. Nowhere is this more clear than in the field of farm broadcasting—farm radio directors smoothly slip from reading the news to doing ads for Monsanto and no one bats an eye.

As a lover of independent journalism, I abhor the idea of media outlets using any copy generated by a PR professional and calling it a “news article.” Agriculture is a controversial, often complicated topic, and it deserves to be treated with the same kind of thorough, hard-hitting journalism that other issues are exposed to. But as a realist, I realize the bind people like Wilmes are in. Times are tough for all businesses, and agricultural newspapers are no exception. The filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the Star Tribune is a grim reminder that independent journalism is on the ropes.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and as news staffs shrink, media outlets will be tempted to accept free copy, audio and video even more in the future. That may be the reality, but it doesn’t make it right. It’s our duty as media consumers to remind editors that we still care about reporting that is not paid for by an agency or group with a particular axe to grind.

It’s amazing what can be learned from a Google search and a phone call.

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