By Greg Horstmeier, DTN Editor-in-Chief
It’s a strange time to talk about ethics and AAEA, and about ethics in communications in general, for that matter.
For the most part, ethical issues raised by AAEA members about other members have dramatically dwindled in recent years.
I’m not sure that’s all just because the issues have diminished. I fear a bit that our sensitivity to the usual ethical dilemmas–the doctored photos that don’t speak truth, the content that blurs lines between the journalist and the advertiser–has been dulled, much like a teenager’s reaction to gore after too many sessions of Carmageddon.
The pressing dilemma that I do hear about, almost monthly, from fellow AAEA members isn’t about relationships with advertisers. It’s about the relationship between ag media outlets, their readers/consumers, and the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
At least once a monthsince November 2016, I hear from DTN/PF readers taking issue with the “negative” tone, or the “liberal bent” of articles about POTUS and his policies. I’ve been flat-out asked that, since we use those “liberal” wire sources such as AP and Dow Jones, if we would include a “Fox News version” of stories in our daily online feeds which farmers could read instead. Many farmers have used those exact words.
Conversations with many of you reveal your offices get those calls and emails too. Everyone agrees it’s something the likes of which we’ve never experienced prior to this political situation.
The conversations I’ve had, show that we editors try to be courteous as we attempt to discuss the difference between news copy written by journalists, and commentary espoused during a huge segment of the Fox News programming day from folks who’ve never seen the inside of a journalism school.
We typically grant that the writers and editors on most of the wire desks lack some basic understanding of agriculture–which is why we in the ag media add value to the farmer’s daily and monthly ingestion of information.
We try to explain the difference between the occasional pieces written with perhaps a more liberal background and story angle, and stories that are simply pointing out untruths or other problems with the administration’s thinking – which would be written the same way regardless of who the President happened to be.
Some of our readers appreciate the conversation. Some are having none of it, and retreat to their tweets. Some of the latter don’t go quietly, either. I can’t count the number of calls or emails that have essentially ended with “you journalists and your liberal bias had better remember who pays the bills around here.” Wow.
The cake-taker, though, was a complaint from a long-time reader who seriously questioned not only our sensibilities but our patriotism. And not for our content, but for the name of the magazine my dear friend and colleague Gregg Hillyer edits: The “Progressive Farmer.” The reader wanted nothing to do with that vile word–“progressive,” that is–coming to his mailbox. He certainly didn’t want to be seen associating with anything “progressive” as he made the trip from mailbox to reading room. If we weren’t willing to change the name, he continued, we should cut him from the mailing list, and others should protest as well, because just using that word in a positive light today was contributing to the downfall of this great nation.
For the record, I did a nominal bit of research on the individual, as any reporter should. He was indeed a soybean producer, not some Russian troll or a prison resident with a strange sense of humor and nothing but time on his or her hands.
My reader’s rabid alt-right Facebook profile and other public posts solidified my fear that he was quite serious about his concerns. This was not simply someone pulling my leg over the use of the “P” word.
I frankly had to walk away from the keyboard and wonder: “How in the hell did we get HERE?
More importantly for the readers of this newsletter, what are WE to do about it?
I don’t have a lot of answers. But I do know, as several of us noted in our editorials around the “enemy of the people” issue, last year that this isn’t just a “mainstream media” problem. We–ag journalists and ag communicators–have a direct and well-trusted voice with some of the folks who have gone the deepest down this divisive rat hole. We can either acknowledge that position, and duty, and think creatively about how we address it. Or we can, knowingly or not, exacerbate it. There doesn’t seem to be much ground in between.
The chief ethical fear for the past 99 years of agricultural journalism has been that one of our number would cuddle up closer to advertisers than others of us, and reap unethical benefits of that. The chief charge of every Ethics Committee has been to protect our collective readers from any hoodwinking that would come from such collusion.
As I look toward that 100th year, I wonder, who needs protecting from whom?
Editor’s note: What do you think? How can agricultural editors and ag media address this situation? Share your thoughts with [email protected]
Take a look at these editorials surrounding the “enemy of the people” issue: