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0508 PD: The importance of media in agriculture today

Published on 20 March 2008

“USDA orders recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef.”

“First apparent U.S. case of mad cow disease discovered.”

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These statements sound like a beginning to an agricultural producer’s worst nightmare, right? Unfortunately, these are just two examples of headlines from CNN which purporting to represent news about the agricultural industry in recent years. Yet these headlines leave consumers confused, alarmed and uninformed. Producers today need to be aware of just how important media sources are in today’s society, where misconceptions about agriculture are formed and how activist groups are getting a head-start in the media. Also, agricultural advocates need to offset negative impressions of agriculture by interacting with the media in order to address consumers’ concerns and promote the industry.

Misconceptions about agriculture mainly originate from books, movies and advertisements, according to the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture. Children’s movies especially often portray animal agriculture in an incorrect way. In the movie “Barnyard: The Original Party Animals” released by Paramount Pictures, the two main characters named Otis and Ben are “male” cows with udders. No wonder consumers are confused. Besides movies, consumers are exposed to a variety of media on a daily basis.

According to researchers at Ball State University, Americans will spend between 9.5 and 11 hours in a 24-hour period engaged with various types of media, often simultaneously. Television is still the most popular and most-used form of media at an average use of 266 minutes per day, but the Internet is a close second at 166 minutes per day. With the Internet, come new forms of media such as blogs or podcasts; other media sources include newspapers, magazines and even cell phones.

With information today literally at the fingertips of consumers, animal activist groups are taking advantage and getting into the media first. If you think these groups consist of a few hundred extremists trying to rally support, you are sorely mistaken. These organizations are well-run, well-funded and increasing in membership. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) now has nearly 10 million members, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) boasts a membership of 1.8 million members. HSUS had over $14 million in fundraising in 2006, while PETA secured $3 million in free advertising as well as 3,300 radio, print and TV interviews last year. HSUS and PETA have also attracted a younger crowd by utilizing websites such as Facebook.com and youtube.com. Almost 11,000 young people claim to support the two animal activist groups on Facebook, and one of the videos that led to the California beef recall has been viewed more than 34,000 times on YouTube. With numbers like that, it seems as if agricultural producers are fighting a losing battle.

However, there is good news. Many agriculture organizations now have websites to identify and address consumers’ concerns and to offer advice to producers in media situations. For example, beef advocates can brush up on their knowledge or point consumers with questions in the direction of the “Beef: From Pasture to Plate” website at www.beeffrompasturetoplate.org. The website includes printable and easy-to-understand “media-friendly fact sheets” as well as profile stories from producers across the country. Likewise, dairy producers can check out www.dairycheckoff.com to find helpful tips and questions to ask reporters before an interview. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) at www.ific.org features a “Risk Communications” aspect of its website. The IFIC summarizes today’s media outlets and how to communicate with each.

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Some producers may be inclined to leave media interaction to the television professionals, but the media is too broad and too important in the everyday lives of consumers. Producers really need to take advantage of every opportunity to promote and represent the agriculture industry. Sure, dealing with the media can be nerve-racking, but it is the duty of producers to maintain the trust of consumers. Industry representatives today need to be more proactive in order to ensure there is a support system in place for future generations of agricultural producers to come. PD

Emily Caldwell
Agricultural Communications student
Penn State University
for Progressive Dairyman

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