Commentary: A nightly non-news event

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Why is news coverage of issues that matter to animal agriculture often so biased?

Certainly the concentration of corporate media, with the consequent focus on profitability, makes it almost inevitable that hard news coverage would be replaced with tabloid journalism as a way to fatten bottom lines, if not enlighten viewers minds. The days of digging deep to make sure the facts are solid has given way to ratings-based coverage of celebrity news and entertainment industry sideshows that grab eyeballs, rather than investigation of serious issues that might require critical thinking.

But a parallel reason news coverage has gotten so one-sided is traceable to a trend that started decades ago in the colleges and universities that churn out journalism graduates.

In the very first class I took—literally Journalism 101—it was immediately apparent who was working toward a career as a news reporter and who was aiming at graduating with an appealing video package that would land them an interview at some mid-market TV station as a “broadcast journalist.”

Those of us who had at least a notion that investigative skills, research capabilities and the ability to organize information cogently were the prerequisites of a professional reporter or editor spent untold hours poring over interview notes, making endless trips to the “morgue” where newspaper clippings were filed (hate to date myself, but there was no Internet then) and writing, re-writing and re-writing again our pitiful six-inch stories about some minor league campus curfew passed by the toothless student governing body.

Those who were planning on a career wearing pancake makeup and smiling into a teleprompter made no such effort. Why bother? Broadcasters don’t get hired on the basis of their copy. Their readiness to appear on camera is based on one singular “skill:” How good they look on air.

Period.

Blatant shock value

That’s the prime reason that if you actually listen to TV news reporters with their “live updates!” and the local news anchors at all but the top 20 media markets, they’re mouthing words that would be immediately deleted by any veteran print editor five seconds after they landed on his or her desk.

Because most of the time, there’s little attempt to bother with actual journalism. It’s a game of pitching a “grabber” of a headline, then backfilling the 60-second report with pre-packaged drivel straight from whichever interest group managed to get the news producer’s attention that evening.

Exhibit A: A “shocking” report from TV station WRGE NewsChannel 3, a CBS affiliate in Memphis, Tenn.

“The breakfast schools are feeding children is killing them, claims one national organization,” the report begins.“It says processed meats, like bacon and sausage, are now linked to cancer. Memphis City School servers (sic) more than 50,000 students breakfast every day.”

(I told you “broadcast journalists” didn’t bother with copyediting in college).

Now here comes the one-sided “expose” the station blithely reports as if it were gospel:

“The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine hopes to change that. They claim school breakfasts, like the ones served at Memphis City Schools, contain process meats (sic), which are linked to cancer. The group is sending out a warning about the risks of eating harmful foods, like bacon and sausage.”

Note the “local angle,” connecting this shocking revelation to the very schools where WREG viewers send their kids! That’s about as far as most broadcasters bother with attempting to drill down into a fluff piece from an activist group blatantly pushing its slanted agenda.

“Processed meat is associated with certain chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and specifically with some forms of cancer, especially colorectal cancer,” said Susan Levin, a licensed dietician who works for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

No discussion of who PCRM actually represents (and it’s not physicians!). Not a peep about its well-known vegetarian agenda. Not one second wasted on informing viewers whether its claims have any validity. The whole point is to suck people into the story with shock value, then keep ’em glued to the screen long enough to roll into the next flight of commercials.

“MCS says it’s made huge strides in the last five years, offering more fruit, whole grains, and low fat dairy products, but the group wants the processed meats gone entirely. ‘The more we serve them to children the more we put them at risk, Levin said. She says harmful meats can be replaced with whole grain cereals and bagels.”

Then the broadcasters close with the kicker: “Memphis City Schools is not the only district that received a failing grade. Desoto County Schools also fell short of PCRM’s standard of no processed meats.”

Wait one hot second. PCRM is in no position to be handing out nutritional grades, and certainly not if passing requires the complete elimination of all processed meats, and replacing them with bagels. I got a news flash for WREG: There’s not a public school district in the country that has eliminated all processed meats, just so they can get a passing grade from a bunch of vegan agitators like PCRM.

This entire report reeks of clueless reporting without a shred of perspective supplied for the viewing audience. It’s the end result of an industry that decided years ago to hire pretty faces and pleasing voices, without worrying about what sort of skills the person brought to the profession.

When a biased piece of non-news like this one gets airtime on a nightly newscast, it’s killing the credibility of broadcasting.

Which is a fatality far worse than any (alleged) mortality resulting from eating bacon for breakfast.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Larry    
SW Minnesota  |  March, 15, 2013 at 08:52 AM

TV news and other Journalism based news groups must have an industry trade group. Why are ther not standards in place and penalities for no "truth in labeling"?

michael    
kansas  |  March, 15, 2013 at 09:05 AM

Thanks for this, and you're right! It's bad, dishonest advocacy and "journalism" is dead. So what, they're successful? Decrying the sad state of affairs does nothing to counter them and we in the livestock industry are being killed with a thousand tiny cuts by this carefully planned assault. What do we do, other than whine about it being unfair? Where is the plan to fight back? We need to hear from producer groups' representatives on what they're doing with all the money they collect to put a stop to this. Feld Entertainment and others in animal display/entertainment took the offensive against HSUS in court and won a major victory. What has the NPPC and others' done for us?

Cathy McKinley    
Kansas City, Missouri  |  March, 15, 2013 at 10:04 AM

We need to share the scientific facts that support a healthy diet.

Jeannette    
Phoenix  |  March, 15, 2013 at 11:48 AM

As a former journalist (25 years) trained to the same standards as Dan, my perception of television news exactly matches Dan's. There is no attempt to evaluate the validity of "news" releases cranked out by activist groups like Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council (remember Alar?), Center for Biological Diversity and on and on and on. My solution was to turn off the television but that only saves my blood pressure and does nothing to correct the constant misinformation disseminated through the broadcast (and print) media.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  March, 15, 2013 at 03:36 PM

The best thing anyone connected to (or empathetic with) animal agriculture can do is utilize every opportunity to speak out on the issues, truthfully, respectfully, but as a person with expertise and credibility borne of working day in, day out in the business. Friends, relatives, neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues, even strangers -- all can be reached with sincere, informative dialogue about what's really involved with raising livestock and producing animal foods. In fact, that's the very best way to influence the 60% to 70% of the population who are basically clueless about meat and dairy production: One convert at a time.


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