James N. Klapthor

Crisis, conflict, and controversy drive most news coverage among the major media that reach the majority of the populace in the United States.

What’s wrong, what’s broken, what’s dangerous, what or who is corrupt, and what needs to be done to fix these problems—real or perceived—will usually be the content that fills the front page, Section A, the evening newscast, morning drive-time, and most any other news product that’s dependent on reaching significant audience segments and the advertisers that seek to connect with those readers, viewers, and listeners. There is no indication that this will change in the foreseeable future.

This is not to say that news of other varieties does not gain significant exposure; it merely takes on a much different form or method to reach its audiences. For example, sports coverage in the daily papers and on national cable television is comparable more to that by People magazine, the National Enquirer, or even the Entertainment section of the same newspaper, in terms of its promotion of teams and players, than it is to coverage of actual hard news.

Let’s now consider food news.

Foodborne illness caused by fresh produce dominated news coverage in late 2006. As of this writing, news outlets are figuratively in a feeding frenzy trying to get at the root cause of recent dog and cat deaths and resulting pet food recalls, the specific source of contamination in gluten originating from China, the likelihood of its being an intentional act of contamination, and the probability the contamination could be in—or make its way into—the human food supply.

While these stories have been published and broadcast at a rabid pace, McDonald’s Corp., for example, has received coverage coast-to-coast and even abroad for reaching consensus on its new trans fat-free frying oil, for a new, larger hamburger, for efforts toward creating a healthier Happy Meal, and for announcing robust financial earnings over the first quarter of 2007. The difference is that this coverage appeared frequently in the Business section of newspapers, in major financial news outlets, and buried deep into radio and television newscasts.

Add to this the cross-promoted coverage gained by popular food "experts" like cable-television personalities and authors Rachel Ray, Alton Brown (less than one-year removed from his popular appearance at the 2006 IFT Annual Meeting & Food ExpoSM in Orlando, Fla.), and their fellow best-selling peer Giada De Laurentiis. Not only do these and other personalities like them create in their own unique manner a portion of the national "news hole" where food topics gain coverage, but they and their support systems work diligently to gain exposure for themselves—and the products they represent—in the same national news media that diligently cover foodborne illness, pet food recalls, and the like.

So as we consider what we’re reading, hearing, and seeing covered by the news media, let’s take a moment to think about what we’re defining as news, who’s making it, where we’re choosing to get the news and how often, and why it’s being covered in the first place. This should begin to assist in any endeavor to assess how well organizations that we represent are performing in their outreach to news media and its audiences.

Here are two examples of the developing reach of scientific perspective from IFT:

Roger Clemens serves as IFT Core Communicator and as such speaks to news media on behalf of IFT on topics involving food. Late last year in the Los Angeles Times he was quoted on the topic of green tea extract and its gaining popularity for the perceived ability to burn more calories than it supplies. "The data are emerging," he said, but "they are not convincing."

That article, written by Sheri Roan, has been republished more than a dozen times, in newspapers that include the Lexington (Ky.) Herald, the Tulsa (Okla.) World, the Houston Chronicle, the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune, and others that reach more than 3 million readers.

No acknowledgement by this column could ever hope to carry the impact that IFT Food Science Communicator Michael Doyle has had on the news coverage of foodborne illness tied to spinach, lettuce, peanut butter, and now pet food. Doyle has delivered scientifically substantive opinion to countless millions of Americans via the major television and cable television news programs, and the largest—and not-even-close-to-largest—newspapers nationwide.

by James N. Klapthor,
Media Relations Manager 
[email protected]