Educating Food Reporters
The professional life of a journalist is one that at some juncture, if not during the entire career, involves a great portion of covering topics on which the person knows essentially very little or maybe nothing. The writer or broadcaster may have had experience covering government and politics, crime and the courts, visual and performance arts, education, science, health, and other areas of special interest. But in all likelihood the person is an expert only in one area, at best: journalism.
Thus, when reporters are responsible for covering a topic that’s outside their areas of expertise, it’s very likely that the best the audience can expect from an issue being covered is a delivery of the following general information only: who, what, where, when, why, how, and how many. And the catalyst for the coverage will not be what’s working correctly or operating properly—what’s the news in that?—but instead what’s wrong with something or what’s being done improperly.
Context comes last, if at all, and usually only when the reporter has the time—which is rare—or the knowledge to put an issue into proper perspective. That’s where the Institute of Food Technologists comes in.
In conjunction with the Foundation for American Communications (FACS), a Washington, D.C.–based journalism society, IFT hosted in July a food science journalism seminar immediately preceding the IFT Annual Meeting + Food Expo® in Las Vegas. Attended by professional journalists, the seminar was designed to introduce the science and safety involved in food. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) assisted IFT by recommending FACS as a partnering organization and identifying available faculty experts.
While it would be impossible during the seminar to provide a complete and substantive overview of the science behind the safety of food and the process involved in the creation of new food products familiar to consumers, the breadth of topics covered in the day-long program was comprehensive nonetheless. Areas presented included product development, testing, foodborne illness, allergy, nutrition facts and myths, food quality and toxicology, and others. Faculty experts included James Albrecht, Dane Bernard, Mary Ellen Camire, Kristine Clark, Roger Clemens, James Coughlin, Michael Doyle, Thomas Montville, Peter Pressman, Donald Schaffner, Steve Taylor, Jeff Varcoe, and Bruce Watkins.
Thirteen reporters from news outlets based in Minnesota, California, Pennsylvania, Washington, Nevada, and elsewhere attended and gave favorable reviews of the education provided. Among their comments were “fascinating topic,” “good information,” “interesting,” “great insight,” “a great resource with a wide knowledge base,” and “would have loved more time.” But as can be expected with a first-time endeavor, there is significant room for improvement. “A bit redundant,” “not a sexy subject,” “talk more about the issue of post-9/11 security,” and “perhaps a bit too long,” were among the descriptions and suggestions for review.
The meat-and-potatoes outcome of a journalism education seminar such as this can be determined when coverage of a food controversy by the attending reporters includes sound scientific insight. And it’s determined when coverage on the minuscule includes big-picture perspective. This is not quantitative analysis, but a qualitative one which cannot be expected to be made immediately. The gravy from such a seminar is in subsequent coverage, such as that supplied to the readers of MSNBC.com on August 5. Reporter Jon Bonne’s article, “Is Medicare’s obesity policy empty calories?” utilized extensively the insight of Clemens and Pressman, two expert faculty presenters whose paths crossed with Bonne for the first time during the seminar. This type of coverage alone is not a great return on investment, as it is fleeting—not rooted in the basis for conducting the seminar—and duplicates a productive system already in place that includes IFT’s Food Science Communicators program. Nevertheless, such coverage should be interpreted as favorable and be included when considering future endeavors to educate journalists.
IFT has not yet determined whether to organize a second such seminar in the future, possibly prior to next year’s IFT Annual Meeting + Food Expo. But considering that reporters take pride in being difficult graders of faculty when it comes to teaching them about subjects they already cover, if IFT should schedule another session in the future it has a sound recommendation on which to stand. Converted to the familiar letter-grade scale, the faculty of the IFT/FACS journalism seminar pulled down an A– on its first test: good, with room for improvement.
by JAMES N. KLAPTHOR
Media Relations Manager