Help or Hinder? How the Mainstream Media Portrays Farming to the Public
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 this 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.
How relevant is agriculture to them?
My 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. I 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.
Farmer to farmer knowledge exchange: Relevance and challenges during changeVicky Robinson
How do I tell the farmer’s story to the larger audience?Yvon Jaspers