Farmers, journalists and academics: a clash of cultures

I recently tried to stand like a little bridge connecting two small and unusual subcultures, while straddling a third subculture.

It made me realize how odd journalists and farmers can seem to those who live outside their subcultures, and how difficult it can be for members of each to understand the other.

And I was pleased to see the third subculture, the university, doing what it could to create a better connection between farmers and journalists, since there is a real danger of those professions and realties falling far out of touch with each other.

Four other journalists and I were brought in to the University of Manitoba’s School of Agriculture to speak to agriculture diploma students about how to interact with the media.

It was their Advanced Communications course, and the existence of that class shows that the school understands how important it is for farmers to know how to talk about what they do.

I was brought in to give them my thoughts on how to deal with controversial issues brought to them by urban reporters. For two sessions I conducted mock interviews in which the soon-to-be-back-farming students got a chance to feel what it might be like to be hit with questions about animal welfare, sustainability, supply management and the role of women in agriculture. 

Those are all issues that drag farmers into the spotlight and these young farmer-students are likely to end up leading farm organizations, where they may have to address these sorts of questions.

There are unique elements of farmer and journalism culture that could lead to misunderstandings and I helped them prepare in order to avoid those misunderstandings.

It made me realize how odd it must be for the average person to pick up the phone and suddenly have a reporter (like me) jabbering into their ear about some allegation, claim or suspicion that has been raised about what they do.

It’s partly the nature of the reporter’s job (working on deadlines, chasing after just-erupted controversies, needing to have a professional skepticism about everything) and partly the nature of the kind of people drawn to journalism (inveterate skeptics, enemies of vested interests, underdog champions) that I think often makes a lot of us seem aggressive and even hostile when dealing with controversial issues.

I tried to explain how that isn’t a sign of bias, but just a professional demeanour that we don’t necessarily realize we have. Almost every journalist I have known is honest, open-minded and wants to get the story right, so farmers like these students need to know they can talk to reporters and probably be fairly treated.

However, farmers aren’t always comfortable talking to media because of those twin hallmarks of farmer culture: humility and pride.

Farmers generally don’t like drawing attention to themselves or their families. That’s what I’ve found in two-and-a-half decades of covering them. They tend to shy away from talking about themselves because of a general “nothing special about me” attitude in many farm communities where nobody wants to be seen as thinking they’re a hot shot.

But that might be what an urban reporter needs to understand an agricultural issue. Complex and controversial issues make more sense when they are seen through the lens of a real human situation, and that’s what a farmer can provide when reached by a reporter

I urged them to not get offended or defensive if hit with aggressive-seeming questions because whatever the reporter’s assumptions are when they call, if they speak honestly with the reporter, they’ll probably find the reporter will treat them pretty well.

But that’s where the third subculture, the university, comes in, complicating things.

I found as I mock-interviewed the students that they continually shied away from talking about their own farms and instead seemed most comfortable discussing the complexities of the issue itself, rather than the ground-level reality in which they live.

That, of course, makes sense if you consider what these students have been doing for two years. At university they haven’t been encouraged to be folksy, relaxed and pithy. They have been studying the complexities of agriculture, of farm business management, of regulatory issues.

Using the words “I”, “me” or “my” is probably pretty rare in their discussions of farm issues. So they get what you could call “educated person syndrome” and talk in the abstract and general.

That’s great at times, but what the reporter probably needs from a farmer is a snapshot of the reality of the issue as it applies to their farming family.

To provide some personal truth might take re-engineering from the abstracting norms of university culture, some getting over the humility of farming culture and patience when facing the aggression of reporter culture, but it’s probably the best way to get true farming stories out to the public.

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